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Jonathan Swift as a Poet 

Swift had the sin of wit, no venial crime; 
Nay, 'twas affirm'd, he sometimes dealt in rhime; 
Humour, and mirth, had place in all he writ: 
He reconcil'd divinity and wit. 

("The Author upon Himself," 9-12) 

Maurice Johnson 


Copyright 1950, Syracuse University Press 

Published by Gordian Press, Inc. with permission 
of Syracuse University Press, 1966 

Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 66-29464 

Printed in U.S.A. by 


Ann Arbor, Michigan 


My thanks are due to Professor Marjorie Hope Nicolson, 
Mr. Harold Williams, Professor Herbert Davis, Professor 
Joseph Wood Krutch, and Mr. Weldon Kees, who took the 
time to read early drafts of this book in typescript. My chief 
debt for continued encouragement and advice I owe to Pro- 
fessor James Lowry Clifford of Columbia University. From 
Professor Lester Middleswarth Beattie, Professor Ricardo 
Quintana, Professor Gilbert Highet, and Mr. T.S. Eliot, I 
have received certain materials, information, or suggestions. 
Nancy Dilworth Johnson and Laurie Johnson have assisted 
me in various ways. The Pierpont Morgan Library has per- 
mitted me to examine manuscripts and letters in Swift's hand. 
A portion of the Appendix to this book has been published in 
Modern Language Notes. 

Most of the quotations from Swift's poems are based upon 
texts in the Syracuse University Library: Volumes 11 (1737), 
VI (1738), and Vlll (1746) of the Works published by George 
Faulkner in Dublin. For every quotation I have made compari- 
son with the text in Mr. Harold Williams's indispensable an- 
notated edition of the Poems, 1937. 




1. Preparation for Poetry 

2. "A Description of the Morning" 

3. "On Poetry: A Rapsody" 

4. Craftsmanship in the Poetry 



1. Swift's Idea of Humor 

2. Acting in Character 

3. Vanessa, Stella, and Daphne 

4. Harley and Sheridan 

5. "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" 


1. Swift's Idea of Wit 

2. The Pattern for "The Day of Judgement" 

3. Epigrams 

4. "A Description of a City Shower" and "Baucis 
and Philemon" 

5. Specific Parodies 

6. "The Legion Club" 


1. Moral Poems 

2. "Unprintable" Poems 

3. "The Lady's Dressing-Room" 







INDEX 141 


PORTRAIT OF SWIFT. By B. Wilson, 1751. Courtesy of the 
Pierpont Morgan Library. Facing page 60 

of early version of "Baucis and Philemon." Courtesy of the 
Pierpont Morgan Library. Facing page 92 

Gulliver's Travels, Hawk es worth's edition, London, 1755. 
Courtesy of the Ranke Collection, Syracuse University Li- 
brary. Facing page 116 

SWIFT AND POPE AMONG SATYRS. Frontispiece to Jona- 
than Smedley's Gulliveriana, London, 1728, published anon- 
ymously. Courtesy of the Columbia University Library 

Facing page 124 



If the reader of poetry is a delicate sounding-board only 
for parlor sentiment, "beauties," and what he hopes is sub- 
limity, he will feel lamentable rudeness in much of the poetry 
of Jonathan Swift. Parlor sentiment is turned inside-out or 
upside-down in Swift's pages, "beauties" prove to be im- 
postors, and sublimity can be a source for mirth. No one 
disagrees that a very significant type of poetry is breath- 
taking in loveliness, awakening reverent emotions that soar 
into the stratosphere. Hardly anyone would disagree either 
that even in inspired hands this type of poetry often goes 
wrong: when sublimity turns out to be only dull or full of 
gas, it is poetry's most obtrusive source of embarrassment. 
It is, Swift wrote in "An Epistle to a Lady Who Desired the 
Author to Make Verses on Her, in the Heroick Stile," like 
a rocket meant to pierce the sky but only bursting into 
pieces in middle air, failing in a thousand sparkles, anil 
returning dead to earth: 

Thus, shou'd I attempt to climb, 
Treat you in a stile sublime, 
Such a rocket is my Muse; 
Shou'd I lofty numbers chuse, 
E'er I reach'd Parnassus' top 
I shou'd burst, and bursting drop. 


Swift had no mercy for the ambitious scribbler who cried 
out that he was soaring like a swan while he still fluttered 
and flopped on the drawingroom carpet: 

And now he spreads his little fans, 
(For all the Muses' geese are swans) 
And borne on Fancy's pinions, thinks, 
He soars sublimest when he sinks . . . 

("Vanbrug's House," early version, 49-52) 

More consistently than his fellow Augustans, the author of 
Gulliver's Travels held the Sublime and Beautiful in doubt 
and had the audacity to laugh at them when they seemed a 
fraud. Other members of the Scriblerus Club— dedicated to 
the ridicule of pedants and correction of false tastes—joined 
him only occasionally in this crotchety attitude. Gay, for 
instance, is best known for happy burlesques like The 
Beggar's Opera, but he tried high flights in Dione and The 
Captives. Though not quite sure of himself, another Scrib- 
lerian, Parnell, wanted to believe with Milton that poetry 
is a heavenly beneficence: "My God! I think I feel the gift 
is thine," Parnell wrote hopefully of his own Muse. In "Peri 
Bathous: or the Art of Sinking in Poetry" Pope formulated 
rules for Low Verse and ironically told how to mix clouds 
and billows for a poetic tempest, set fire to a town in rhyme, 
or put Jupiter "in a ferment." Yet Pope himself attempted 
some serious flights of imagination. He would not have 
wished to share Swift's reckless description of his own poetry 

No thought, no fancy, no sublime . . , 
("To Mr. Delany," 11) 

For Thomas Hobbes the sublime consisted of poetical 
fancy and fury; for Sir William Temple it was that which 
amazed; and the critic John Dennis, defining it at length 
at the beginning of the eighteenth century, identified it with 
"enthusiastick passion." Dennis's enthusiastic passions 
are six: admiration or wonder, terror, horror, joy, sadness, 
and desire. He insisted that these emotions are strongest 
when they rise from enthusiasms predominantly religious. 

Now, fanatics, enthusiastic preachers, and excess of re- 
ligious ecstasy are the subjects of some of Swift's most 
violent ridicule, especially in A Tale of a Tub and A Dis- 
course Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, 
when he wickedly describes the preacher's "sublime" snuf- 
fling and nose-blowing that pierce the hearts of a simple- 
minded congregation. Pulpit-enthusiasm for him was merely 
the art of canting, devoid of wit, humor, or sincerity. Cant- 
ing seemed to him no more attractive in poetry than in the 

He scorned poets like Sir Richard Blackmore, who wrote 
a Satyr against Wit and set himself up as a sublime poet, 
carefully seeking to evoke wonder, terror, joy, and a sense 
of vastness. Blackmore's poems are heavy-laden with "pure 
cerulean fields," "waste places," "effulgent emanations," 
"rolling worlds immense," "heaven's bright towers," and 
"fierce storms." Despite all his endeavor Blackmore's 
storms are not very fierce and his towers are not very bright. 
The Dunciad ridicules the braying of this "enthusiast," and 
in Swift's verses "On Poetry: A Rapsody" poor Blackmore 
is thrust with a leaden crown into the category of the "low 
sublime," which is beneath the ridiculous. 

At least one of Swift's own poems appears on first exam- 
ination to suit all the eighteenth-century critical requirements 
for sublimity of the loftiest kind. Dennis, like Edmund Burke 
after him, saw terror as a grand emotion and wrote that the 
greater the terror in a poem, the greater the poem might be. 
Nothing, he said, neither ruined abbeys nor howling ghosts 
nor the thought of bodily decay, was so terrible— and sub- 
lime—as the idea of an angry God. It is difficult to imagine 
an angrier God than the Jove of Swift's "Day of Judgement." 
But Swift deliberately and paradoxically spurns sublimity. 
By means of a witty stylistic device, in "The Day of Judge- 
ment" and other poems, he builds up an effect only to over- 
turn it. He is deliberately anti-"poetic"— opposing insincerity, 
prettiness, and the false sublime. 

Just as sublimity itself in Swift's day had been measured 


and weighed and was attempted by recipe, poems were gen- 
erally written to fit into compartments each unmistakably 
identified. On each poetic compartment sat a proprietary Muse 
representing the noble epic, the ode, satire, the elegy, the 
epistle, the song, pastorals and georgics, imitations and 
translations, or occasional verse. These genres— and their 
variations— had forms and patterns based upon respected 
tradition; there was precedent at hand for almost any poetic 
expression proper to the Age of Reason. The writer of verses 
chose the compartment most suited to what he had in mind; 
and when his verses had been printed, they were read by a 
public expecting to recognize one of the conventional kinds 
of poetry. In the early years of the eighteenth century it was 
even possible to identify the nature of certain poems by their 
format: broadside elegies and their appended epitaphs were 
printed in black letter and could not be mistaken, with their 
mourning margins that showed cross-bones, shrouds, coffins, 
skeletons, and a "memento mori." The nature of a poem was 
often explicit in its title: "The Medal 1: A Satyre against 
Sedition"; "Rural Sports: A Georgic, Inscribed to Mr. Pope*'; 
"The Bard: A Pindaric Ode'*; "Elegy Wrote in a Country 
Church-yard." An eighteenth-century audience, knowing what 
to look for in verse, required no such explanation as that 
provided by the publishers of a twentieth-century Baroque 
Eclogue. "Mr. Auden's latest poem, The Age of Anxiety, is 
an eclogue," the supposedly puzzled reader is informed; 
"that is to say, it adopts the pastoral convention in which 
a natural setting is contrasted with an artificial style of 

But poets occasionally reminded themselves of the rules. 
In Restoration days the Earl of Mulgrave's "Essay upon 
Poetry" had rehearsed the "differing kinds" and "various 
sorts of verse." Thirty years later there was a similar re- 
hearsal of "all kinds of poetry" in John Gay's "Epistle to 
Bernard Lintott." Both of them prescribe that the elegy, for 
instance, must be "of sweet but solemn voice" and must 
"fill some pages with melodious woe." 

Swift, like his fellow-poets, paused to categorize the 
various sorts of verse. But unlike them he was less con- 


cerned with the rules than with the pitfalls of poetry, satir- 
izing contemporary cliches: 

When wretched lovers live on air, 
I beg you'll the camelion spare. 

No son of mine shall dare to say, 
Aurora usher' d in the day 

Your tragick heroes shall not rant, 
Nor shepherds use poetick cant.... 

If ANNA's happy reign you praise, 
Pray not a word of halcyon days. 

When poets soar in youthful strains, 
No Phaeton to hold the reins. 

("Apollo's Edict," 16-17, 20-21, 
27-28, 44-15, 52-53) 

He differed from Mulgrave and Gay by demonstrating the way 
in which an elegy should not be written: 

When Damon*s soul shall take its flight, 
Tho' poets have the second sight, 
They shall not see a trail of light: 
Nor shall the vapour upwards rise, 
Nor a new star adorn the skies.... 


In the same manner that Swift chaffed what he considered 
to be the false sublime, he parodied the several fixed kinds 
of verse fashionable in the eighteenth century. The titles of 
his poems show that he wrote within the accepted patterns: 
there are epistles, odes, ballads, elegies, imitations and 
translations, pastoral dialogues, and occasional verses. 
But more often than not, the reader soon discovers, it is 
"A Satirical Elegy," "A Quibbling Epigram," "A Love Song 
in the Modern Taste/* or "Verses on I Know Voi What. " His 
"Famous Prediction of Merlin" is a practical joke that fooled 


even Dr. Johnson; and "A Pastoral Dialogue" pitilessly bur- 
lesques the elegant diction expected in that kind of poem. 
Because burlesque itself was among the "various kinds" 
of verse, it too was written according to rules. The reader 
of burlesque was almost certain to encounter preposterous 
distortions of famous lines of poetry. Swift was outdone only 
by Pope in this sort of parody: 

Before their eyes in sudden view appear 
The secrets of the hoary deep.... 

(Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 890-891) 

may she better learn to keep 
Those secrets of the hoary deep! 

(Swift, "The Lady's Dressing-Roora," 97-98) 

Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull .... 
(Denham, "Cooper's Hill," 191-192) 

Her hands the softest ever felt, 

Tho* cold would burn, tho' dry would melt. 

(Swift, "Strephon and Chloe," 27-28) 

'Tis doubtful which is sea, and which is sky. 
(Garth, The Dispensary, V, 176) 

'Twas doubtful which was rain, and which was dust. 

(Swift, "A Description of a City Shower," 26) 

Not content with holding the false sublime up to public 
ridicule and parodying the several compartments of poetry, 
Swift sometimes played frivolous games with the Latinity 
that most other poets of his day used solemnly. Toward the 
end of his life he liked to address his friends in a kind of 
pig-Latin overborne with puns f as in his "Love Song" that 
begins "Apud in is almi des ire...." (A puddin' is all my 

Though he once complained in a letter that "This Virgil 
sticks plaguily on ray hands," the Latinity in which he was 
schooled plagued his verse through "Baucis and Philemon," 


"The Legion Club," and "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." 
It was not, for instance, the Christian God that he addressed 
or referred to in all his poetry, but the Latin Jove (less odd 
perhaps than Gerard Manley Hopkins's referring to God as 
"Sir"). When he wrote his single poem describing Nature, 
it was not in his own language but in the severity of Latin. 
His "Carberiae Rupes," 1723, describing the violence of 
angry sea and raging wind, has something in common with 
Samuel Johnson's calmer Nature poems for which he also 
resorted to the cover of Latin, immured against what might 
be considered sentimentality. 

Ther© is angry indignation like that of Juvenal in "The 
Legion Club" and other poems; but Swift's work more often 
shares the wit, humor, and felicity of diction to be found in 
Horace, from whom some of his most humorous lampoons are 
derived. "Had he lived in the same age with Horace," the 
Earl of Orrery wrote in his Remarks upon the Life and Writ- 
ings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, "he would have approached nearer 
to him, than any other poet." Like Pope and most of his 
other contemporaries he appropriated the Odes, Satires, and 
Epistles for his own use, paraphrasing and imitating, as some 
modern poets have done with the works of Rilke and Baude- 

Schooled like Swift in Latin, attuned to the neo-classical 
code, and suspicious of singularity, the eighteenth-century 
reader of poetry expected to find reflections of Latinity in a 
new miscellany or volume of verses "on Several Occasions." 
Swift's imitations of Horace addressed to Harley must have 
seemed admirable to such a reader; and even his scatological 
"Lady's Dressing-Room" (printed in The Gentleman* s Mag- 
azine opposite a page of statistics on the national debt) must 
have seemed properly reminiscent of Juvenal. But the eight- 
eenth-century reader probably saw some rudeness in Swift's 
descriptions of Roman goddesses in un-heavenly postures; 
his preference for Cloacina over Diana; his rhymes of 
"Juno"/ "you know," "solum" / "stole 'urn," and "Livy" / 
"privy"; and his lines "in praes o Molli": 

Mollis abuti, 
Has an acuti. 


No lasso finis; 
Molli divinis. 
Omi de armistres, 
Imi na Dis tres; 
Cantu disco ver 
Meas alo ver. 

The Grubstreet hack of William Hogarth's realistic engrav- 
ing "The Distressed Poet" sits in a miserable garret, his re- 
jected manuscript beside him as he desperately writes for 
money to pay his landlady and provide food for his family. 
This is no more like Swift than are conventional eighteenth- 
century engravings that depict poets with garlands at their 
feet, Cupids poised above them, and the Muses proffering 
wreaths of laurel. Although Swift appears in this Augustan 
attitude in the frontispiece to the Dublin edition of his 
Poems on Several Occasions, it is hard to believe nowadays 
that the engraving was entirely serious in intention, espec- 
ially since the "Advertisement" to that edition introduces 
the poems as consisting "either of humour or satyr, and very 
often of both together." More characteristically Swift the 
poet would have been shown in the pose that the Earl of 
Rochester assumed for his portrait: crowning a long-tailed 
monkey with a wreath of bays. 

Because Swift was a parodist in verse (as he was in prose), 
"serious" poets of the eighteenth century went out of their 
way to avoid resembling him. In his essay "Eighteenth- 
Century Poetic Diction" Professor Geoffrey Tillotson men- 
tions Swift only to say that his insistence upon calling a 
spade a spade frightened other neo-classic poets into the 
periphrasis of "billowy main," "bleating kind," "scaly 
breed," "humble swain," or "enameled plain." Addison 
advised in Spectator 285 that "a poet should take particular 
care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speaking." 
To be idiomatic was exactly what Swift intended in most of 
his verses. 

Even as a satirist Swift was occasionally an exception in 


his age. Professor James Sutherland (A Preface to Eighteenth 
Century Poetry) differentiates Swift from Addison, Steele, 
Pope, and Fielding, whose satire was intended for readers 
already convinced of the opinions to be presented. Like 
Byron and Shaw, of two succeeding centuries, Swift some- 
times flew in the face of public opinion. Although he always 
reminded other writers of their obligations to polite opinion, 
Swift was, Professor Sutherland concludes, **a law to him- 
self.. .." 


In the science of physics "to sublime" means to pass 
directly from a solid to an expansive, gaseous state. For 
poetry to be "sublime" it must have an analogous quality 
of rising and expanding; and it must to some degree be in- 
flammable. Like his prose, Swift's poetry is solid, concise, 
intense, and tangible; once touched by the hand, it will al- 
most always change in form, may prove to be a hoax that in 
turn proves to be deadly serious, or may be ice that scorches; 
but it remains a solid. This does not, however, mean that it 
cannot give pleasure; for, being poetry of humor and wit, it 
both delights and surprises. 

xvi 1 



The seventeenth century was dying when Jonathan Swift 
was young. Yet he at first identified himself with the dying 
century, deferentially invoking the metaphysical Muse that 
had once served Abraham Cowley. In his first published poem, 
written with Cowley as his model, Swift tenderly addressed 
a "young and (almost) Virgin-muse," a Muse that toward the 
middle of the next century, in "Verses on the Death of Dr. 
Swift," he dismissed as "a jade" worn out through decades 
of assistance to his wit. When Swift had become an Augustan, 
he soon found in Cowley a source for parody and irreverent 
laughter. As neatly as the death of Dryden in 1700 closed 
the century, Cowley's death in 1667, the same year Swift was 
born, marked an exchange of the old age for the new. 

Throughout his poetic career, at first imitative and then 
reactionary before it was truly creative, Swift was a self- 
conscious craftsman. Occasionally he recorded his poetic 
problems and aspirations, as he did in a long, confessional, 
discursive letter to his cousin Thomas in May, 1692, in his 
twenty-fourth year. It is a letter that reveals as much about 


his early endeavors as do the poems themselves. He has 
regularly set aside two hours of the morning for writing and 
revision of his odes, he tells his cousin, and must "alter 
them a hundred times/' although he does not consider him* 
self "a laborious dry writer." In his wish to compose some- 
thing "easy to be understood" he is self-critical, and he is 
concerned with the "honesty of poets," believing that the 
ability to write well necessitates a deserving subject. His 
ingenuous admission of overfondness for his own lines ("I 
have a sort of vanity or foiblesse") and his pride in his first 
published poem reflect a serious effort behind his versifying. 
And across this letter to his cousin, as well as across the 
early poems, lie the heavy shadows of Abraham Cowley, 
"rich Mr. Cowley," the "Pindaric" Cowley he wanted to 
emulate, and Sir William Temple, whom Swift preferred "to 
all others at present in England." Not only the idea for the 
ode to the Athenian Society but even figures of speech in 
the early poems come in large part from Temple, the founder 
of the Privy Council and negotiator of the Triple Alliance, 
who had now retired to his orchards and kept Jonathan Swift 
as his servant among the pippins, muscadines, apricots, 
folios, quartos, she 11-roclc -work, and female relatives at Moor 
Park. In his Miscellanea Temple remarked: "I have had sev- 
eral servants far gone in divinity, others in poetry...."; and 
when he recommended Swift for employment, he wrote: "I 
venture to make you the offer of a servant, in case you may 
have occasion for such a one as this bearer...." The servant— 
his duties were actually those of a personal secretary— en- 
deavored to please his master and flattered him by repeating 
his stalest pronouncements and similes. 

Cyril Connolly, describing Temple as an old Polonius and 
the M. de Norpois of his day, attributes his influence on 
Swift to a kind of auto-suggestion. There was another impor- 
tant influence, however— that of the old Polonius's library, 
in which Swift read hungrily. In 1697 he kept a list of books 
he read at Moor Park. Chiefly classical, they included Homer, 
Virgil, Horace, Lucretius, Petronius, Voiture, Blackmore s 
Prince Arthur, and Hobbes's translation of Thucydides. In 
1697, too, he wrote most of those remarkable fables called 


A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, in which every 
page, through allusion, parody, or imitation, reflects hours 
spent in the library. Among the Ancients and Moderns he 
ranged against each other in the famous "battle" were Aesop, 
Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, and Pindar; Cowley, Davenant, Den- 
ham, Wesley, Blaclcmore, and Dryden (with a helmet "nine 
times too large for the head"). Missing from these lists is 
the name of one writer significant in the study of Swift's 
poetry. In these early years, when he was receiving his M.A. 
from Oxford, being ordained a priest, returning intermittently 
to Moor Park, and trying to find his place in the world, he 
may already have known the poetry of Samuel Butler. It is 
the poetry most like his own of later years. And he is sup- 
posed to have been able, as an old Dean, to recite all of 
Butler's Hudibras. There is no record of his ability to do 
this with the work of any other poet, ancient or modern. 

The "Ode to the Athenian Society," as Swift wrote in the 
letter to his cousin, was "rough drawn in a week, and fin- 
ished in two days after." It was addressed to the anonymous 
writers for the Athenian Gazette, a weekly periodical that 
professed to answer all queries submitted to it. With a pref- 
atory letter, in which Swift hinted at encouragement from 
Temple, unnamed, the poem was published in a supplement 
to the fifth volume of the Gazette early in 1692. It was Swift's 
first appearance in print, and probably his least attractive 
effort. "The Ramble," mentioned in the letter to his cousin, 
has been lost, along with another piece called "The Poet"; 
and although two versions of an ode to King William have 
been attributed to Swift, there is no absolute proof of his 
authorship. The early poems that can definitely be estab- 
lished, then, are the "Ode to the Athenian Society," the 
"Ode to Sir William Temple," the "Ode to Dr. William San- 
croft," "To Mr. Congreve," and "Occasioned by Sir W(illiam) 
T(emple)'s Late Illness and Recovery." Of these only the 
three entitled "Ode" are in the rhetorical, irregular "Pin- 
daric" form borrowed from Cowley. Heroic couplets are used 
for the poem to Congreve and that purporting to celebrate 
Temple's recovery from illness. Only the ode in the Athenian 
Gazette was published in Swift's lifetime. 


Without much coherence the "Ode to the Athenian Society" 
rants about Swift's own poetic Muse, modern pedantry, and 
the world's natural decay, which will bring disintegration of 
even the brilliant Athenian Society. These "exalted men,/ 
Who have well studied in the world's disease" will be suc- 
ceeded by "Gothic swarms" from "Ignorance's universal 
North," a "Careless and ignorant posterity..." Imagery in 
the poem is that of inevitable wasting away: with every pass- 
ing age Philosophy is less certain; Learning and Wit are 
fleeting and vain; winter sun is followed by "the long and 
gloomy night"; and every noble work is doomed to "fall at 
last to interest, folly, and abuse." This is an understandable 
point of view for Sir William Temple, whose Privy Council 
had failed, whose Triple Alliance had disintegrated, whose 
only son had committed suicide, and who now consoled him- 
self by fighting decay in his orchards. There is Temple's 
voice more surely than his servant Swift's in the delineation 
of inevitable darkness and disaster. 

Again, in the "Ode to the Honourable Sir William Temple," 
it is less the voice of young Swift than of the old ambassador 
that reminiscently exclaims: 

Great God! (said I) what have I seen! 

On what poor engines move 

The thoughts of monarchs, and designs of states . . . 


Dedicated to the "pleasures of retreat," well-groOmed plum 
trees, woods, vales, and peace, this ode is an oddly arranged 
bouquet of blandishments for the Great Man who had retired 
from the ugly scrabble of politics to cultivate his prose-style 
in leisurely essays "Upon the Gardens of Epicurus" and 
"Of Health and Long Life." It is a versification of Temple's 
own reasons for abandoning public office, telling how he 
wished to secure for himself the peace he had tried to give 
his country. Nine lines from the poem have modern interest, 
because out of all Swift's early poems they seemed to W.B. 
Yeats a marked exception. In conversation concerning Swift, 


Yeats called the attention of Harold Williams to the following 

But what does our proud ign'rance Learning call, 

We odly Plato's paradox make good, 
Our knowledge is but mere remembrance all, 

Remembrance is our treasure and our food; 
Nature's fair table-book our tender souls 
We scrawl all o'er with old and empty rules, 

Stale memorandums of the schools; 

For Learning's mighty treasures look 
In that deep grave a book . . . 


Temple in retirement, looking back on his years of activity, 
might himself have written that "knowledge is but mere re- 
membrance all." 

Throughout the twelve stanzas of the third "Pindaric," 
the uncompleted "Ode to Dr. William Sancroft, Late Arch- 
bishop of Canterbury," there is a well-defined set of images. 
Sun is contrasted with cloud, light with darkness, and dazzle 
with blindness. In the "dusky shade" of this world there is 
no "brighter pattern" of Truth than Dr. Sancroft (whom Dryden 
in Absalom and Achitophel had called "Zadock the priest"). 
He is like an unseen star shedding "his sacred influence 
here." In Swift's eleventh stanza the sun-and-light imagery 
becomes a blaze: Sancroft's "lustre" shows "glimm'rings 
of the prelate glorify'd." He is compared to the evening sun 
"behind a golden cloud" that leaves a "daz'ling glory": 
"No deflower'd eye can face the naked light. . ." This imag- 
ery, too, as in the "Ode to the Athenian Society," seems 
borrowed, belonging here more to Milton and Cowley than to 
Swift. Though obviously imitative, the poem seems more ac- 
complished than Thomas Flatman's "Pindaric" ode also ad- 
dressed to Dr. Sancroft. It is, as a matter of fact, no clumsier 
than most of the odes of Cowley, Flatman, Congreve, Addison, 
and Pope. Dryden's are the only real exception. T.S. Eliot 
has remarked that, although the Pindaric ode cannot be proved 
absolutely impossible in English, it has almost always turned 
out dismal. For Swift to begin his career with an unwieldy 


vehicle, first trying his skill in a doomed medium, was as 
hopeless as the project Lemuel Gulliver observed in the 
Academy in Lagado, for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers. 
Later, in "Directions for a Birth-day Song" and "On 
Poetry: A Rapsody" he maliciously described the antics a 
poet must perform to secure patronage, preferment, a laur- 
eateship, or a guinea in the hand. Like other odes of his time 
Swift's were probably intended as a means to an end, polit- 
ical when they flattered the King or Sir William Temple, 
religious when they praised Dr. Sancroft. Simultaneously with 
his dropping of the "Pindaric" form, he fixed upon a new 
goal, neither the court nor the church, but the World of Wits. 
His younger schoolfellow, William Congreve, was already, 
ahead of him, a member of that world, and Swift evidently 
hoped now to join him. "To Mr. Congreve," written in Novem- 
ber, 1693, could serve as his means of entrance: its couplets 
would be printed with Congreve's second comedy, The Double- 
Dealer, and would introduce Swift's name to fashionable so- 
ciety and Grubstreet alike. But the rhymed epistle prefixed 
to the first edition of that play in 1694 was not Swift's. It 
was, instead, John Dryden's expert, gracious acknowledge- 
ment of Ccngreve's genius— the old dean-of-the-poets' wel- 
come to a young rival: "To My Dear Friend Mr. Congreve, on 
His Comedy, Call'd, The Double-Dealer." Before the time 
came for his epistle to be printed, Swift himself had com- 
manded the world of the Wits and had been dead for over fifty 
years. Even then nobody had much good to say for it. Only 
one of its couplets, Juvenalian and anticipatory with its 
"hate," "sin," "folly," and "lash" that reappear in later 
poems, seemed worthy of the terrible Dean: 

My hate, whose lash just heaven has long decreed 
Shall on a day make sin and folly bleed . . . 


Nowadays, however, "To Mr. Congreve" is properly re- 
garded as Swift's first step toward mature, characteristic ac- 
complishment in either poetry or prose, and thus occupies an 
important place in the chronology of his works. With a de- 
scription of a contemptible little fop, who has returned from 


London as a "finish'd spark" and self-designated judge of 
taste, the poem whips out at the whole tribe of town critics. 
Most of the themes important in A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver 's 
Travels, and the later poems appear here, only half realized 
but already effective. Emile Pons in his exhaustive Jeunesse 
de Swift, which long ago should have been published in 
translation, has noted some of these themes: the same hate 
for pedantry and rules that flashes through A Tale of a Tub; 
the Yahoo-imagery of "odious smell"; the same true satirical 
manner of poems like the "Epistle to a Lady" and "On 
Poetry: A Rapsody"; and, most significant to Dr. Pons, a 
Swiftian mythology, "le mythe animal" of the Houyhnhnms 
and "The Beasts Confession." Ail these themes appear in 
a passage printed in Geoffrey Grigson's interesting anthology 
Before the Romantics. Under the title of "The Animal Critics" 
this excerpt from the poem "To Mr. Congreve" seems dis- 
tinctly better, as a sustained creative effort, than the par- 
ticular verses by Dryden, Defoe, Tom Brown, and Elizabeth 
Rowe, among which it stands: 

What northern hive pour'd out these foes to wit? 
Whence came these Goths to overrun the pit? 
How would you blush the shameful birth to hear 
Of those you so ignobly stoop to fear; 
For, ill to them, long have I travell'd since 
Round all the circles of impertinence, 
Search'd in the nest where every worm did lie 
Before it grew a city butterfly; 
I'm sure I found them other kind of things 
Than those with backs of silk and golden wings; 
A search, no doubt, as curious and as wise 
As virtuosoes* in dissecting flies; 
For, could you think? the fiercest foes you dread, 
And court in prologues, all are country-bred; 
Bred in my scene, and for the poet's sins 
Adjourn'd from tops and grammar to the inns; 
Those beds of dung, where schoolboys sprout up beaus 
Far sooner than the nobler mushroom grows: 
These are the lords of the poetic schools, 
Who preach the saucy pedantry of rules; 


Those pow'rs the criticks, who may boast the odds 
O'er Nile, with all its wilderness of gods; 
Nor could the nations kneel to viler shapes, 
Which worship'd cats, and sacrific'd to apes; 
And can you think the wise forbear to laugh 
At the warm zeal that breeds this golden calf? 


Here, to defend wit against its enemy the Critic, Swift com- 
pares him to a worm, a cat, an ape, and a golden calf; even 
a squatting mushroom has more nobility than he. The corus- 
cating city butterfly is reminded that he has only recently 
left the barnyard, a scene from which Swift often drew satir- 
ical imagery. The beaux who sprout from "beds of dung" are 
like the "gaudy" female "tulips rais'd from dung" in the 
famous "Lady's Dressing-Room," four decades later: of all 
Swift's images and symbols— wind, clothing, the barnyard, 
dressing-rooms, and beasts, for instance— those pertaining 
to excrement are his most constant. Here too, in this early 
poem, are a swipe at "pedantry of rules," as in the "Di- 
gression" to A Tale of a Tub, and a side-blow at virtuosos, 
as in the Laputan parodies of the Royal Society. Not all this 
passage from "To Mr. Congreve" is forward-looking, however. 
The Goths pouring from a "northern hive" are the same 
"Gothic swarms" that came out of "Ignorance's universal 
North" in the "Ode to the Athenian Society." They are very 
likely the same "Gothic swarms" with their "shades of ig- 
norance" that Sir William Temple described in his essay 
"Of Poetry." 

When Swift reread the lines of his verses "To Mr. Con- 
greve," he may have imagined himself equal to Cowley 
("when I write what pleases me I am Cowley to myself," he 
had confessed to his cousin); or he may have been dis- 
couraged. For in December, 1693, in verses "Occasioned by 
Sir W(illiam) T(emple)'s Late Illness and Recovery," he dis- 
missed his Muse. Suddenly desperate and disgusted, he vowed 
never to woo the tyrant Muse again: 

Malignant goddess! bane to my repose, 
Thou universal cause of all my woes . . . 


Madness like this no fancy ever seiz'd, 
Still to be cheated, never to be pleas'd; 
Since one false beam of joy in sickly minds 
Is all the poor content delusion finds.— 
There thy enchantment broke, and from this hour 
I here renounce thy visionary pow'r; 
And since thy essence on ray breath depends, 
Thus with a puff the whole delusion ends. 

(81-32, 147-154) 

Trying to make a career of poetry, Swift had needed a 
firmer guide than his own admiration for lumpish odes or his 
wish to please his aphoristic old employer, Sir William Temple. 
The criticism that finally came was not a guiding hand but 
a hard push off a cliff, iu Dryden's judgment that he would 
never be a poet. After the renunciation of his Muse, more 
than five years passed before he wrote any poetry that he 
preserved. And then it was the antithesis of the "Pindaric": 
it took the form of a jingling lampoon in "The Problem," 
or it was the pleasant doggerel of "Mrs. Harris's Petition," 
or it was a ballad to the tune of "Cutpurse." There were even 
vers de sociite in "Apollo Outwitted," addressed to Mrs. 
Finch, who became the Countess of Winchilsea, and in the 
lines "To Mrs. Biddy Floyd." There were rhymed jokes like 
"An Elegy on Mr. Partrige" and "A Famous Prediction of 
Merlin, the British Wizard; Written above a Thousand Years 
Ago, and Relating to this Present Year." 

All this is casual, sometimes careless, occasional verse 
that is obviously not intended to have a place in a career 
dedicated to poetry. That career seems to have been aban- 
doned. But in "Baucis and Philemon" and "A Description 
of the Morning," both published in 1709, there is the profes- 
sional poet's sureness of touch. In both these poems there 
is the pattern and type of wit that Swift perfected and that 
hardly anyone has had the wit to imitate. Because it is half 
reactionary and half creative, written with wit that has not 
quite found itself, "A Description of the Morning" is a useful 
poem for examination. It represents a transitional phase in 
Swift's writing of poetry. 




"A Description of the Morning" has usually been considered 
of more interest biographically than as a metrical accomplish- 
ment. It was first published in Swift's forty-first year, while 
he was in London on church business as a representative of 
the Irish clergy. His Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books 
had been published anonymously five years before, and seven- 
teen years were to pass before the publication of Gulliver's 
Travels. In 1709, at the time of "A Description of the Morn- 
ing," Swift was entering a period of fame and excitement. 
Now he was perhaps best known as the perpetrator, in his 
"Bickerstaff" papers, of the most convulsing practical joke 
of the decade; and within a year and a half he was to be 
transformed forever from a rhyme-making priest into the king 
of the Wits. Temporarily, too, he was to be a powerful figure 
in English politics. In 1709 he wrote a gossipy account of his 
London literary and political activities in a letter to Col. 
Robert Hunter, a prisoner in France. It is a letter familiarly 
concerned with Grubstreet, St. James's Coffeehouse, and the 
vogue of operas. It wishes ill luck for the Duke of Marlborough, 
refers to Whigs, Tories, and friends in the Ministry, and 
speaks of literary men like "Namby-Paraby" Philips, Steele, 
and Addison ("I am now with Mr. Addison, with whom I have 
fifty times drunk your health since you left us"). Swift was 
near the center of things. 

In 1709 Queen Anne was in the seventh year of her reign, 
Samuel Johnson was born, Henry Fielding was two years old, 
young Pope was writing his "Essay on Criticism," and Steele, 
taking suggestions from Swift, founded the Tatler. It was, in- 
deed, in the ninth issue of the Tatler, for April 30, that "A 
Description of the Morning" first appeared, with an introduc- 
tion by "Isaac Bickerstaff." The poet, this introduction says, 
"described things exactly as they happen: he never forms 
fields, or nymphs, or groves, where they are not; but makes 
the incidents just as they really appear. For an example of 
it; I stole out of his manuscript the following lines: they are 


a description of the morning, but of the morning in town; nay, 
of the morning at this end of town, where my kinsman at pre- 
sent lodges." This could serve as an introduction to all the 
rest of Swift's poetry to come; his attempt to combine sense 
with wit left little place for the stage-scenery of "fields, or 
nymphs, or groves." 

At first glance, Swift seems to have provided no more than 
a fairly interesting, particularized eighteenth-century scene 
in his "Description of the Morning." Unlike the verses on his 
death and the verses to Stella it is not self-consciously per- 
sonal; unlike his "Legion Clubhand "Lady's Dressing-Room" 
it does not make the reader's hair stand on end. It is a real- 
istic set-piece. It might conceivably have been the text for 
Hogarth's "Morning," which shows the Begging Crone, the 
Loose Girl, the Persistent Rake, the Shivering Page, and the 
Old Maid against a background of snowy pavement, dark build- 
ings, and darker morning sky. Hogarth drew these type-figures 
and symbols in a style that is witty, ironic, conversational, 
and full of surprising contrasts; so that no matter how didactic 
his purpose or how dreadful or commonplace his details, the 
picture affords pleasure to the eye. Swift's style in his poetry 
is a counterpart to this: his type-pictures and symbols are 
often conventional, ready-made ones wittily placed in a new 
relationship or unexpectedly altered. In "A Description of 
the Morning," although the subject itself is ready-made, the 
general texture of the poem, in contrast, is unconventional 
and anti-"sublime." 

As in Hogarth's chilly morning scene, Swift's picture is 
that of stairways, gateways, and the street, where a few 
hackney-coaches show that another workday is at hand. De- 
spite the title of the poem, there is no description of Nature. 
The maid, the apprentice, and the schoolboy dominate the 
scene, with the mop, old broom, and satchel of books that 
serve as symbols for their place in life. The people in the 
poem do not look forward to a day that promises satisfaction 
or romance: morning means only the end of the night's pleas- 
ures if there were any, the return to menial tasks, the resum- 
ing of responsibilities and involvements, and fcr some the 
jail, or— for the schoolboy just as confining— the classroom. 


The Slipshod 'Prentice, the Small-Coal Man, the Dun-Bearers, 
Brick-Dust Moll, and the Watchful Bailiffs of the poem are un- 
" poetic" symbols standing for all the workaday creatures who 
appear with every dawn. They represent a disenchanted idea 
of Morning~*/ie morning, as the title states. Because it is not 
merely a morning that Swift describes, the poem becomes a 
statement of a point of view, a way of looking at life, and an 
attitude: as he does elsewhere more violently, he says here 
that life is an experience more likely to be routine and stupid 
than a romantic picnicking. And he expresses this attitude, 
paradoxically, by means of wit that implies an enjoyment of 

The true wit of such a poem as "A Description of the Morn- 
ing" issues from its surprising distortion of familiar poetic 
form and language. Here Swift mocks the elaborate descrip- 
tions of time-points (dawn, midnight, etc.) which appear in 
Greek, Roman and modern classicizing poetry: the cliche* 
"Now Aurora had left the bed of Tithonus" becomes "Now 
Betty from her master's bed had flown" in Swift's parody. 
Parody of "poetic" diction grins out from almost every line 
of Swift's poems like "A Description of the Morning." That 
particular piece leaves a commonplace impression— on first 
reading— largely because it has the appearance of a hundred 
other eighteenth-century verses which go something like this: 
"Milady twirls her fan with dext'rous airs,/ Prepar'd to make 
her entry down the stairs. . ." or "The parson now his flock 
returning sees. . ." Swift's poem does not sound quite like 
that: he has made witty substitutions in the old familiar 
phrases and laughs at other poetry while he is writing a poem 
of his own. The reader sees upon examination that "milady" 
has been metamorphosed into a scrub-girl, the "fan" is a mop, 
and the "parson" has become a jailer waiting for his wards: 

Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs, 
Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs. 

The turn-key now his flock returning sees, 
Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees. 

(7-8, 15-16) 


A Description of the Morning 

Now hardly here and there a hackney-coach 

Appearing show'd the ruddy morn's approach: 

Now Betty from her master's bed had flown, 

And softly stole to discompose her own. 

The slip-shod 'prentice from his master's door 

Had par'd the dirt and sprinkled round the floor. 

Now Moll had whirl'd her mop with dext'rous airs, 

Prepar'd to scrub the entry and the stairs. 

The youth with broomy stumps began to trace 

The kennel-edge where wheels had worn the place. 

The small-coal man was heard with cadence deep; 

Till drown'd in shriller notes of chimney-sweep. 

Duns at his lordship's gate began to meet; 

And brick-dust Moll had scream'd thro' half a street. 

The turn-key now his flock returning sees, 

Duly let out a-nights to steal for fees. 

The watchful bailiffs take their silent stands; 

And school-boys lag with satchels in their hands. 

Characteristic though most of the poem is, it very likely 
reflects the hand of Addison alongside Swift's. Addison wrote 
of Swift as "the greatest genius of his age," but took it for 
granted that he should criticize, refine, or perhaps even re- 
write his friend's metrical compositions. His changes for 
"Baucis and Philemon" were numerous and always directed 
toward correctness and propriety. It is possible that the heroic 
couplets in "A Description of the Morning" were the suggest- 
ion of Addison; and it is interesting to consider whether the 
poem might not have been racier and stronger if written in the 
four-stress poetical line Swift had already taken for his own 
use. But as in "A Description of a City Shower," "The Author 
upon Himself," and two or three of the adaptations from 
Horace, Swift's heroic couplets here are no Iron Maiden in 
which the poem is clamped. There are everywhere adjust- 
ments, loosenings, and pressures to make the meter fit the 

The first two lines of "A Description of the Morning" set 


the basic metrical pattern of iambic pentameter and closed 
couplets. In the third line, however, there is no strong accent 
on the word "from," where it would naturally fall, and the 
line moves more rapidly to suggest the haste of Mrs. Betty. 
In the thirteenth and sixteenth lines there are departures from 
the metrical norm of the poem in "Duns" and "Duly": instead 
of the regular iambic opening, the accent falls on the first 
syllable in these lines. Throughout the poem there is a marked 
secondary accent in the unusual number of compound words— 
in "small-coal," "brick-dust," "turn-key," and "school- 
boys" especially. Half the lines in the poem deviate from the 
basic metrical pattern. 

In the line "Now MOLL had whirPd her MOP with dext'rous 
airs," there is conscious manipulation of sound. There is not 
only alliteration in "Moll" and "mop," but there is assonance 
of the accompanying vowel, so that the interplay of these 
similar-sounding words gives an effect of action to the word 
"whirl'd" that is between them. Though the poem is rich with 
alliteration, it is not always seriously employed. The ugly, 
asthmatic first line is surely intended to give the clue to the 
parody to follow: 

Now HARDly HERE and there a HACKney-coach . . . 

Beyond those that have been noted, there are other effects of 
sound that were very likely conscious ones, such as the 
repetition in "TURN-key" and "reTURNing" in the fifteenth 
line, or the more subtle, less certain echo in "ApPEARing," 
"Had PAR'D," and "PrePAR'D" in lines two, six, and eight. 
The line "And school-boys lag with satchels in their 
hands," with which "A Description of the Morning" con- 
cludes, is admirable for its easy, unobtrusive handling of 
meter and sound-combinations. After the descriptions of pre- 
dawn and early-morning activities in the poem, the appearance 
of the schoolboys marks a kind of finality: daytime has now 
arrived. The line moves slowly, with triple-stress on "school- 
boys lag" and repetition of a in "And," "lAg," "sAtchels," 
and "hAnds." It is a line perennial in poetry. In "The Morn- 
ing Quatrains" Charles Cotton had preceded Swift with "The 
slick-fac'd school-boy satchel takes,/ And with slow pace 


small riddance makes" (65-66). Robert Blair followed with a 
less memorable version: "The school-boy, with his satchel 
in his hand" ("The Grave," 58). Horace had written it as 
"Laevo suspensi loculos tabulamque lacerto" (S. 1.6.74). 
It is best known in the blank verse of Shakespeare's As You 
Like It, where Jaques makes it "And then the whining school- 
boy, with his satchel" (II,vii,145). 

Thus, in "A Description of the Morning" the final line 
comes out of poetic tradition. It seems admirable and memor- 
able in a way not characteristic of the rest of the poem or of 
Swift's poetry in general. Here he has suddenly abandoned his 
theme of parody— or at least he has not heightened it as a 
final line requires. In other poems, including some of his 
most accomplished ones, it is the final line, rushing the read- 
er back to earth with a somersault, that brings the whole effect 
of parody and wit. In this poem, written with Addison at hand, 
Swift breaks almost entirely, but not quite, from the tradition 
he had tried to follow in his "Pindaric" odes. He had already 
written his wonderful burlesque of Ovid; but even "Baucis 
and Philemon" lacks the audacity of "The Place of the 
Damn'd," "The Day of Judgement," "The Legion Club," 
and "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." 

"A Description of the Morning" is in itself a good poem 
that does not wither under close scrutiny. It is, moreover, the 
best example of Swift's poetry in an important state of trans- 
formation. It already shows the mark of the sin of wit. 


Written almost a quarter of a century later than the "Morn- 
ing," "On Poetry: A Rapsody" is representative of Swift's 
most mature and sustained satire. It is one of his chief claims 
to the title of poet, and is a good introduction to the prosody, 
diction, and imagery of his most highly accomplished verse. 
To Goldsmith, in The Beauties of English Poesy, it seems 
one of the best versified poems in our language, and the 
most masterly production of its author." It is Swift's own 
Art of Poetry, "Essay on Criticism," and Dunciad combined. 


Craik says in his Life of Swift that "Pope's highest efforts 
seem weak and almost tame" when compared with "On Poetry: 
A Rapsody," which "stands side by side with Pope's Epistle 
to Augustus, and transcends the latter in its force of sweep- 
ing sarcasm." Swift's satire was so powerful, and his polit- 
ical allusions were so vexing in high places, that after the 
poem was published, at the end of 1733, his London publisher 
and the unfortunate Mrs. Barber, who had brought the poem from 
Dublin, were both imprisoned for a year. Walpole, who had 
been satirized in a passage beginning "Now sing the Minister 
of State," issued a warrant for arrest of the author; but when 
he was told that an army of ten thousand men would be re- 
quired to lay hands on the Dean in Dublin, he withdrew the 
order. The poem was considered subversive and dangerous to 
the welfare of the state. Its title, ironically subheaded "A 
Kapsody," is obviously intended to vex and mock. 

There are three main divisions in the poem. First, there is 
Swift's cynical advice to would-be poets (1-232); next, liter- 
ary critics and all the inhabitants of Grubstreet ("jobbers in 
the poet's art") receive a trouncing (233-404); and finally 
there is the ironical praise, sneering at Monarch and Minister 
of State, that annoyed Walpole (405-494). In general the lines 
are remarkably clear and brisk-moving. They do not, like some 
of the lines of The Dunciad, cause the reader to nod, stretch, 
yawn, and doze along with Pope's heroes; nor do they require 
an encyclopedic gloss like that appended to the longer poem. 
Writing to Pope about The Dunciad, Swift had remarked: "How 
it passes in Dublin, I know not yet, but I am sure it will be 
a great disadvantage to the poem, that the persons and facts 
will not be understood till an explanation comes out, and a 
very full one." Now, working with material similar to Pope's, 
he was allusive but almost never obscure. 

Posing as "an old experienc'd sinner" instructing a laur- 
eate-in-the-making, Swift is mild and playful at first. He pre- 
sents a formula for composition of dull poetry: 

Blot out, correct, insert, refine, 

Enlarge, diminish, interline; 

Be mindful, when invention fails, 

To scratch your head, and bite your nails. 


Your poem finish'd, next your care 
Is needful, to transcribe it fair. 
In modern wit all printed trash, is 
Set off with num'rous breaks and dashes 

To statesmen wou'd you give a wipe, 
You print it in Italick Type. 
When letters are in vulgar shapes, 
*Tis ten to one the wit escapes: 
But when in CAPITALS exprest, 
The dullest reader smoaks a jest: 
Or else perhaps he may invent 
A better than the poet meant, 
As learned commentators view 
In Homer more than Homer knew. 

Swift assures his "young beginner" that this first attempt 
at poetry will be abused by all the critics. He can, however, 
line a trunk with his poem and try again a second time and a 

But first with care employ your thoughts, 

Where criticks mark'd your former faults: 

The trivial turns, the borrow' d wit, 

The similes that nothing fit; 

The cant which ev'ry fool repeats, 

Town-jests, and coffee-house conceits; 

Descriptions tedious, flat and dry, 

And introduc'd the Lord knows why. . . 

Or oft when epithets you link, 

In gaping lines to fill a chink; 

Like stepping stones to save a stride, 

In streets where kennels are too wide: 

Or like a heel-piece to support 

A cripple with one foot too short: 

Or like a bridge that joins a marish 

To moorlands of a diff'rent parish. 

So have I seen ill-coupled hounds, 

Drag diff'rent ways in miry grounds. 

So geographers in Afric-maps 


With savage-pictures fill their gaps; 
And o'er unhabitable downs 
Place elephants for want of towns. 
(149-156, 167-180) 

Swift is almost at his best in this parody of poetic epithets, 
where his congregation of ineptitudes— stepping-stones, a 
cripple's heel-piece, a bridge, hounds, and elephants on a 
map— have the sound of many a poet's serious and sad attempt 
at brilliant figures of speech. Though he remains always level- 
voiced, like the disillusioned "old experienc'd sinner" he 
professes to be, his irony becomes sharp and his wit becomes 
merciless as the poem continues. It is exactly because the 
tone is so constantly level and chilly that "On Poetry: A Rap- 
sody" seemed unbearably insulting to Walpole and the others 
it named. 

The second division of the "Rapsody" is, like The Dunciad, 
a personal attack upon certain poets and critics. Both Pope 
and Swift assumed a kind of critical infallibility, at the same 
time scorning such an assumption in other writers. Moreover, 
they both felt contempt for all "jobbers in the poet's art" 
who depended upon publication for their bread and butter. In 
Swift this contempt was unreasonable; but in Pope it was in- 
defensible, because his livelihood, like that of the "jobbers," 
in part depended upon successful publication. 

Advising his "young beginner" of the tricks of the critic's 
trade, Swift makes side-remarks about Rymer, Dennis, Dryden, 
Cibber, Flecknoe, Howard, Blackmore, Grimston, Welsted, 
Concannen and Smythe. These are, for the most part, names 
with which Pope had played. Indeed, in this section of Swift's 
poem there is the footnote: "Vide The Treatise on the Pro- 
found, and Mr. Pope's Dunciad.* 1 But Swift is not imitative 
here. Whereas The Dunciad is a memorial to dullness, ignor- 
ance, and universal darkness, "On Poetry: A Rapsody" is 
witty and bright. It is distinguished by clever, easy general- 
izations of a kind that cannot be found in The Dunciad: 

Hobbes clearly proves that ev'ry creature 
Lives in a state of war by nature. 
The greater for the smaller watch, 


But meddle seldom with their match. 
A whale of moderate size will draw 
A shole of herrings down his maw. 
A fox with geese his belly crams; 
A wolf destroys a thousand lambs. 
But search among the rhiming race, 
The brave are worried by the base. 
If, on Parnassus' top you sit, 
You rarely bite, are always bit: 
Each poet of inferior size 
On you shall rail and criticize; 
And strive to tear you limb from limb, 
While others do as much for him. 

This passage has the same joining of felicity and cynicism to 
be found in the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. In "Verses upon 
the Death of Dr. Swift" the text is taken from La Rochefou- 
cauld himself. Here it is Hobbes whose philosophy is adapted 
to a brilliant description of the biting that is habitual among 
"the rhiming race." There is simple effectiveness in the con- 
sistent figure of speech that contrasts the poet with the whale, 
herrings, fox, and wolf; it was just such a figure of speech 
that Swift had recommended by implication in his parody of 
jumbled epithets, earlier in the poem. If the sixteen lines of 
this passage seem too simple and easy to be great poetry, it 
must be remembered that the appearance of easiness had been 
cultivated and perfected for over a quarter of a century. In 
Swift's early odes there were the complications, obscurities, 
and flights that are absent here; but there was pretty certainly 
no great poetry in the early odes. 

The best-known lines from the poem, and perhaps the only 
lines by Swift that have become common property in recitation 
books and collections of old saws, are those that describe the 
hierarchies of small critics. They are lines so familiar that 
they are usually disassociated from Swift's name. Miss Mar- 
jorie Nicolson suggests that they are borrowed from the micro- 
scopical literature of the period, in which fleas and lice were 
fashionable subjects for poetry: 


The vermin only teaze and pinch 
Their foes superior by an inch. 
So, nat'ralists observe, a flea 
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey, 
And these have smaller yet to bite 'ein, 
And so proceed ad infinitum: 
Thus ev'ry poet in his kind, 
Is bit by him that comes behind . . . 


In its final division "On Poetry: A Rapsody" turns to pure 
burlesque. Swift had called court-poetry a prostitution of the 
Muse's name and had censured the laureate Cibber for his 
"annual birth-day strains." Now he produces two court-poems 
of his own, of a kind bold enough to warrant his arrest. For 
thirty lines he describes the royal family in language that is 
full of irony. To Professor Quintana this passage seems as 
intense as anything in Byron's Vision of Judgment. It makes 
George II "the conqu'ring hero" and his royal consort the 
"perfect goddess born and bred." Adulatory phrases expected 
of a lackey laureate become simpering and ridiculous in 
Swift's parody: 

The remnant of the royal blood, 
Comes pouring on me like a flood. 
Bright goddesses, in number five; 
Duke William, sweetest prince alive. 


In twenty-four succeeding lines Sir Robert Waipole is extrav- 
agantly praised for the virtues he had never had: 

In all affairs thou sole director, 
Of wit and learning chief protector; 
Tho' small the time thou hast to spare, 
The Church is thy peculiar care. 


Remarkably sustained through hundreds of lines, the poem 
terminates humorously in a cluster of dashes, italics, aster- 
isks, and Latin footnotes. 



Through the irony, parody, and satire of his "Rapsody" 
and similar works, Swift stated his poetic credo. He thought he 
was a judge of good poetry: proof of that lies in his contempt- 
uous and critical parodies of poetry he knew was bad. But he 
was not always contemptuous. He took the time to write 
letters of advice to would-be poets he had never seen, and he 
read through his friends' verses, meticulously noting down 
their slips and stumblings. When, for example, he was an old 
man and Pope a poet of reputation, he wrote in detail to point 
out, after expressing general admiration, the weaknesses in 
Pope's epitaph on Gay: "The beginning of the last line, 'strik- 
ing their aching bosoms.' Those two participles come so near, 
and sounding so like, I could wish them altered, if it might 
be easily done." Pope made the alteration, on this advice, 
with a new word for "aching," though his "pensive bosoms" 
seems no real improvement. 

In all poetry Swift was conscious of phonetic effects and 
the relation of meter to meaning. In his "Description of a 
City Shower," to choose from a familiar poem, the jerky, re- 
peated i's in the excellent line "Brisk Susan whips her linen 
from the rope" suggest the hurried action of clothes being 
snatched from a clothesline. And in his satirical "Directions 
for a Birth-day Song" he advises court-poets that "Hard, tough 
cramp, gutt'rall, harsh, stiff names" like Hesse Darmstadt 
and Guelph are unsuited to adulatory verse, whereas the name 
"Caroline" is itself a kind of music. Though his purpose is 
chiefly satirical, his rhymed analysis of the phonetics in 
"Caroline" shows his consciousness of the subject: 

Three syllables did never meet 
So soft, so sliding, and so sweet. 
Nine other tuneful words like that 
Would prove ev'n Homer's numbers flat. 
Behold three beauteous vowels stand 
With bridegroom liquids hand in hand, 


In concord here for ever fixt, 
No jarring consonant betwixt. 

In the turgid, early odes, alliteration, assonance, and other 
sound-combinations are painfully deliberate. Such a desper- 
ately versified line as "CHIEF CHERub, and CHIEF lamp of 
that SACred SEVen," from the ode to Dr. Sancroft, begins un- 
mistakably with a series of sneezes. Just such an effect might 
have been sought in later, more mature work, but not to grace 
a solemn ode. Like the following excerpts, it would have 
suited the mood of a humorous ballad or an angry lampoon: 

Said to the PIPpin, PLUMP, and PRIM 

("On the Words-Brother Protestant," 13) 

Not BEGgar's BRAT, on BULK BEgot 

("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 33) 

They CUDGell'd, and CUFT him, and KICKT him down stairs 
("The True English Dean to Be Hanged for a Rape," 16) 

All their MADness MAKES ME MERry 

("Epistle to a Lady," 164) 

Like a BEAU in the BOX, he BOW'D low on each side 

("Clever Tom Clinch Going to Be Hanged," 10) 

Then GLUTtony, with GREASy PAWS, 
Her napkin PINN'D up to her jaws, 

("A Panegyrick on the Dean," 255-257) 

I MURder poor MILton 

("My Lady's Lamentation," 156) 

SIT STILL, and SWALlow down your SPITtle 

("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 122) 

Swift's versification is not always so eager to show the 
tricks it can do. The contemplative lines of "Verses on the 
Death of Dr. Swift" do not often hiss like "Sit still and swal- 
low down your spittle." In the glowing lines of the verses to 
Stella there are combinations of sound and rhythm that occa- 
sionally seem almost like Donne's or Marvell's. When he is 


not trying to scarify, Swift's couplets-out of their context- 
can be as deceptively simple as Mother Goose rhymes or 
little songs by Herrick, or as smooth as expert limericks: 

Through candle-light she view'd the wine, 
To see that ev'ry glass was fine. 

("Stella at Wood-Park," 19-20) 

To cry the bread was stale, and mutter 
Complaints against the royal butter. 

Whilst Lady Charlotte, like a stroller, 
Sits mounted on the garden roller. 

("Richmond-Lodge and Marble-Hill," 
53-54, 61-62) 

Last night was so extremely fine, 
The ladies walk'd till after nine. 

("Cadenus and Vanessa," 326-327) 

If these charming couplets were to be printed without iden- 
tification, even the admirers of Swift would probably not name 
him at once as the author. By persons supposed to have read 
him, Jonathan Swift has so often been airily dismissed as a 
versifier limited to octosyllabic jingles on angry or uncom- 
fortable subjects, that it is important to make a point of the 
variety in his poetry. Variety is there— in his odes, heroic 
couplets, quatrains, ballads, adaptations and translations 
from Latin, vers d'occasion, parodies, narratives, street ven- 
dors' cries, riddles, and experiments with rhyme and length 
of line. It was characteristic of him in both his poetry and 
prose to experiment, mimic, assume a foreign style, and write 
under pretense of not being Swift. 

He could write headlong, ragged doggerel like that of John 
Skelton two centuries earlier: 

Hail fellow, well met, 
All dirty and wet: 
Find out, if you can, 
Whose master, whose man; 
Who makes the best figure, 
The Dean or the digger; 


And which is the best 
At cracking a jest. 
("My Lady's Lamentation," 165-172) 

Or he could pretend to a style almost Shakespearean: 

In dagger-contests, and th' artillery of words, 
(For swords are madmen's tongues, and tongues are 

madmen's swords) . . . 
("Ode to Dr. William Sancroft," 13-14) 

Still a third fragment, written in his sixty-sixth year, does 
not have the sound of any other poetry by him: 

I walk before no man, a hawk in his fist, 
Nor am I a brilliant, whenever I list. 

Here is his favorite pattern of four stresses, but in a long 
line; an uncharacteristic sharply-marked caesura divides the 
lines; and the curiously obscure imagery might be Romantic, 
perhaps modern. The imagery might well be obscure, as much 
so as that in Kubla Khan: for, like a proper Romantic poet, 
Swift dreamed the couplet. Under two illegible lines on the 
blank page of a book, he wrote— in delectable mock-serious- 
ness: "I waked at two this morning with the two above lines 
in my head, which I had made in my sleep, and I wrote them 
down in the dark, lest I should forget them. But as the orig- 
inal words being writ in the dark, may possibly be mistaken 
by a careless or unskilful transcriber, I shall give a fairer 
copy, that two such precious lines may not be lost to pos- 

Overshadowing all this diversity, however, is Swift's almost 
constant mood of parody in his poetry. And, of course, the 
great preponderance of it is written in octosyllabic couplets. 
It was this verse-form that Pope naturally appropriated for 
his "Seventh Epistle of the First Book of Horace, Imitated 
in the Manner of Dr. Swift" and that Goldsmith used for his 
"New Simile, in the Manner of Swift." The octosyllabic iambic 
couplet, which Samuel Butler passed along to Swift, is admir- 
ably suited to humorous or satiric verse. It is not encumbered 
by length, and half of its syllables carry a stress of voice, so 


that it can rattle, sputter, snicker, and curse in a way unat- 
tained in longer, more dignified, and more elegant lines. But 
because it can reproduce the sound of natural, simple speech 
and song, it has been used not only for satire and impreca- 
tion, but for some of the loveliest lyrics of Lodge, Jonson, 
Herrick, Lovelace, and Marvell. 

In Samuel Butler's hands this four-stress verse had irreg- 
ularity but little variety. And his two- and three-syllable 
rhymes, like "laden"/"Madam," "at a rate* '/"adequate," 
and "sisters'V'whiskers," were deliberately crude. Swift 
borrowed multi-syllabic rhyming for his lampoons and trifles, 
but his accent, as in "bitter at" / "illiterate," usually falls 
where it would in normal speech. A comparison of his style 
with that of Butler will show how he improved upon his bor- 

From Butler's HUDIBRAS 

But no beast ever was so slight 
For Man, as for his God, to fight. 
They have more wit, alas! and know 
Themselves and us better than so. 
But we, we onely do infuse 
The rage in them like boute-feus. 
'Tis our example that instills 
In them th' infection of our ills. 
For as some late philosophers 
Have well observed, beasts that converse 
With Man, take after him, as hogs 
Get pigs all th' year, and bitches dogs. 

(I, 775-786) 


Creatures of ev'ry kind but ours 
Well comprehend their nat'ral pow'rs; 
While we, whom reason ought to sway, 
Mistake our talents ev'ry day: 
The ass was never known so stupid 
To act the part of Tray, or Cupid; 


Nor leaps upon his master's lap, 
There to be stroak'd and fed with pap; 
As Aesop would the world perswade; 
He better understands his trade: 
Nor comes, whene'er his lady whistles; 
But, carries loads, and feeds on thistles. 


The four-stress verse for Swift is sometimes brisk and hard- 
riding, sometimes flexible and swirling, and sometimes cold 
and plain. It most often shows itself in iambic couplets. But 
it appears in quatrains for "The Progress of Beauty"; in 
triplets, which he elsewhere deplored, for verses "To the Earl 
of Peterborow"; and in alternation with three-stress lines for 
"Advice to the Grub-Street Verse Writers." In "The Grand 
Question Debated" the four stresses are spread out among 
anapests; and in "The Legion Club," in which the intention 
is vilification and violence, the line begins with a stress, 
like the sound of a whip striking a table. 

Byron once wrote enviously that Swift "beats us all hollow, 
his rhymes are wonderful." In Don J uan— notorious for its un- 
expected rhymes -Byron is indeed seldom more inventive than 
Swift in such a poem as "Directions for a Birth-day Song," 
with its "ferks his"/"Xerxes," "spoke all"/"local," "tri- 
dent"/"ride in't," and "Willy put"/"Lilliput." Even though 
he always tipped his verse with rhyme, sometimes disyllabic 
or trisyllabic, Swift did not see an enemy in unrhymed poetry. 
"As to your blank verse," he advised a correspondent, "it 
has too often fallen into ... vile hands of late. One Thomson, 
a Scotchman, has succeeded the best in that way, in four 
poems he has writ on the four seasons, yet I am not overfond 
of them, because they are all description, and nothing is do- 
ing, whereas Milton engages me in actions of the highest im- 
portance..." Swift's objection to The Seasons is not based 
on any aversion to blank verse. 

But he did object impatiently to rhymes that offended his 
ear. When he wrote to Pope about the translation of Homer, 
it was to express annoyance "at some bad rhymes and trip- 
lets..." And in his copy of Dr. James Gibbs's paraphrase of 


the Psalms, he scribbled disdainful comments alongside tone- 
deaf rhymes like "pride"/"destroy'd" and "more"/"pow'r." 
For the first he wrote, "Pronounce it like the Scotch,'* and 
for the second, "Pronounce this like my lady's woman." 
Though it had less foundation than his dislike for ugly, in- 
exact rhyme, his hatred for triple rhyme was almost an obses- 
sion. Perhaps, as Lord Orrery believed, there was an exterior 
reason for Swift's hatred— a reason bound up in personalities 
and not in mere versification. It occurred to Orrery that it was 
not so much a matter of prejudice against the practice itself, 
as against certain poets: "Mr. Dryden," he noted, "abounds 
in triplets..." and "Mr. Waller. .. generally reserved the 
nicest point of wit to his triplicate line . . ." 

Something must now be said about diction, though Herbert 
Davis's excellent analysis of the diction in Swift's prose 
applies equally well to the poetry. As Mr. Davis makes clear, 
Swift was characteristically concise in all his writings, with 
a conciseness that has defied imitation. 

Swift's diction in his poems seems for the most part in- 
tended to be spoken and conversational rather than sung or 
declaimed. For a poet like Chaucer this speaking voice is 
almost tender; for Swift it is generally witty, occasionally 
didactic, and now and then indignant. Unless it is assisting 
in parody, the vocabulary is natural and easy. Though Dr. 
Johnson professed indifference to the poetry, he and his 
assistants set down samples of it on almost every page of 
his Dictionary to show the use of "charms" and "chatter," 
"decorum," "glibber," "goody," "gracefulness," "iron- 
ically," "night-cap," "poetical," "satirick," "spittle," and 
words equally various. "Blab," "huddle," "jerk," "jog," 
"jug," "waddle," and "wag," however inelegant they may 
be, are not too easy-going for poetry: in Dr. Johnson's Dic- 
tionary Swift shares the authority for their use with Shakes- 
peare and Milton. Swift's dictum of "proper words in proper 
places" did not exclude "clitter-clatter," "hoddy-doddy," 
"ninny," "noddle," and "tattle" from his poetry. 

In the verses called "Apollo's Edict" Swift pokes fun at 
tired-out phrases like "lips of coral," "teeth of pearl," 


"deep yet clear," and "halcyon days," that are still in the 
running after two hundred years. When he appropriated such 
cliches for his own poetry, it was generally with parody in 
mind. He did not believe in pretending to find virtues in the 
dead diction of an obscure, uninspired poem. He knew what 
to do with it, as he demonstrates brilliantly in his verses 
"On Burning a Dull Poem": 

The cold conceits, the chilling thoughts, 

Went down like stupifying draughts: 

I found my head began to swim, 

A numbness crept through ev'ry limb: 

In haste, with imprecations dire, 

I threw the volume in the fire: 

When, who could think, tho* cold as ice, 

It burnt to ashes in a trice. 

How could I more enhance its fame? 
Though born in snow, it dy'd in flame. 


It would be strange if there were no images, allegories, 
metaphors, puns, and symbols in the poetry of Jonathan Swift; 
for they are brilliant in his prose, as the following verbal 
feats, the first from A Tale of a Tub and the second from 
Gulliver's Travels, can demonstrate: 

Is not religion a cloak, honesty a pair of shoes, worn out 
in the dirt, self-love a surtout, vanity a shirt, and con- 
science a pair of breeches? 

For instance, they can decypher a close-stool to signify 
a privy-council; a flock of geese, a senate; a lame dog, 
an invader; the plague, a standing army; a buzzard, a min- 
ister; the gout, a high priest; a gibbet, a secretary of 
state; a chamber pot, a committee of grandees; a sieve, 
a court lady; a broom, a revolution; a mouse-trap, an em- 
ployment; a bottomless pit, the treasury; a sink, a court; 
a cap and bells, a favourite; a broken reed, a court of 
justice; an empty tun, a general; a running sore, the ad- 


As they stand, these two lists of symbols have the appearance 
of notes for poems on religion and the state. The first, indeed, 
might be read like this: 

Is not religion a cloak, 

Honesty a pair of shoes, 

Worn out in the dirt, 

Self-love a surtout, 

Vanity a shirt, 

And conscience a pair of breeches? 

Comparison, either explicit or vague, is one of the bases 
for all poetry; but when Swift builds upon a simile it is, rather 
than a lovely woman's resemblance to a sweet-scented rose 
or a teardrop's resemblance to a little world, apt to be one of 
intentionally un-"poetic" irony, paradox, and wit. The inno- 
cent reader who thinks of poetry as a silken grab-bag of meta- 
phors from which posies, bonbons, and silver do-dads may be 
drawn, is likely to reach into a poem by Swift and draw out a 
spitball or a tarantula. Classical embellishments, for example, 
when they appear in his poetry, are often surprisingly intro- 

Ovid had warn'd her to beware, 

Of stroling gods, whose usual trade is, 

Under pretence of taking air, 
To pick up sublunary ladies. 

("Apollo Outwitted," 21-24) 

Here poor Pomona sits on thorns: 
And there neglected Flora settles 
Her bum upon a bed of nettles. 

("The Dean's Reasons," 92-94) 

There Cerberus lay watching in his den, 
(He had not seen a hare the Lord knows when) . . . 
("On Mr. Pulteney," 25-26) 

When first Diana leaves her bed 
Vapors and steams her looks disgrace, 
A frouzy dirty colour'd red 
Sits on her cloudy wrinckled face . . . 
("The Progress of Beauty," 1-4) 


In the absurd or rude context Ovid's gods, Pomona and Flora, 
Cerberus, and Diana are divested of their classical dignity 
in order to create a new relationship and meaning. 

When Swift uses this device in reverse, it is to turn a dig- 
nified subject into satire, to singe a pompous dunce, or to 
scorch a political enemy. "The Progress of Poetry, " a sober 
subject in other writers' hands, is built upon the analogy be- 
tween a prosperous poet and a goose that has grown too fat 
to fly and sing. "On Poetry: A Rapsody" compares a hard- 
labored poem to the chicken that requires a month to fatten 
but is devoured and forgotten in a few minutes. In other poems 
intended to vex, instruct, or amuse, the barnyard contributes 
still further similes in a frustrated hen, a flooded stable, a 
skinny cow, and a larva in a meal-bin. Most famous of all in 
the poetry are the ass, swine, and goat of "The Beasts Con- 

Whatever else he may be, Swift is not a rural or "folksy" 
writer. Instead, as in Chaucer's story of Chauntecleer and 
Dame Pertelote, who discuss Boethius in the henhouse, there 
is almost a sophistication in the rude buffeting of anti-"sub- 
lime" barnyard associations in a new context. Perhaps he 
leads chickens, cows, horses, and pigs into his verse in order 
to laugh at the growing literature concerned with the Happy 
Beast. Poets like Thomson and Pope had joined Locke to 
say that animals have powers of reason, opposing other poets 
like Young who held to Descartes' conception of animals as 
mere automata. In depicting men as crass, unreasoning Ya- 
hoos and animals as noble Houyhnhnms, Swift turns the whole 
argument into absurdity. His "Beasts Confession," pushing 
the Lockean theory to its wildest extreme, concludes with 
the casual observation that 

now and then 

Beasts may degen'rate into men. 


he my the animal for Swift is almost never a matter of ante- 
lopes, unicorns, tigers, and fabulous giraffes popular in me- 
dieval "bestiaries." One of the most memorable passages in 
The Battle of the Books is that which likens a certain kind 


of wit to skimmed milk for the hogs. Elsewhere in his prose 
the best example of this effect is in the delineation of the 
Houyhnhnms, also drawn from the barnyard, but elevated 
above it and even above the barnyard that is called polite 

It will be remembered that those admirable horses, the 
Houyhnhnms, represent Swift's idea of reasonable, uncor- 
rupted goodness in poetry, as in every endeavor of life. Like 
Swift himself, the Houyhnhnms express themselves with 
"justness" and "exactness." They are, however, ideal 
creatures and create ideal poetry that is probably not very 
lively. For unlike Swift the Houyhnhnms are not blessed by 
humor and the sin of wit: "In poetry they must be allowed to 
excel all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes, 
and the minuteness, as well as the exactness of their de- 
scriptions, are indeed inimitable." 




"I have observed," Lord Bathurst wrote to Jonathan Swift 
on April 19, 1731, "that in comedy, the best actor plays the 
part of a droll, while some scrub rogue is made the hero, or 
fine gentleman. So, in this farce of life, wise men pass their 
time in mirth, while fools only are serious. Adieu. Continue 
to be merry and wise; but never turn serious, or cunning." 

On this letter Swift superscribed the words: "It is too late 
for me to turn serious now." 

It was too late for him to strike humor and mirth from The 
Battle of the Boohs, A Tale of a Tub, The Drapier's Letters, 
Gulliver's Travels, and the Miscellanies; too late for him to 
make them the wholly grave and didactic works they might 
have been. He was, in 1731, writing of his own death in a 
humorous vein, commenting on envy, friendship, the life of 
Man, and his own situation in verses that are a masterly elab- 
oration of the theme, "It is too late for me to turn serious now." 


Swift's idea of humor remained little changed throughout 
his life, and on several occasions, in verse and prose, he set 
down definitions, differentiating humor from its sister, wit. 
The Author's Apology for A Tale of a Tub concludes with the 
observation that humor is the "most agreeable" gift of human 
nature. More than thirty years later almost the same phrases 
appear in the Irish Intelligencer, No. Ill, 1728: " . . .humour, 
which in its perfection is allowed to be much preferable to wit, 
if it be not rather the most useful, and agreeable species of 
it..." Under the title of "A Vindication of Mr. Gay, and the 
Beggar's Opera" this essay from the Intelligencer is a defense 
of that talent so delightful to most persons but described as 
"low" by contemptuous grim critics. The "low" humor or 
comedy exalted by Rabelais in France, Cervantes in Spain, 
and "those volumes printed in France, under the name of Le 
Theatre Italien," Swift says, is a happy talent natural to 
even the simplest schoolboy or apprentice. Though the school- 
boy is not, and will very probably never be, a good judge of 
poetry, eloquence, and music, he knows almost infallibly 
whether a thing is funny or not; and the apprentice requires 
neither special cultivation of taste nor any Aristotelian meas- 
uring rod to feel instinctively that he must slap his thigh and 
bellow with laughter, lie on the floor and kick with joy, or, 
the humor failing, draw a long face. On its most artistic level, 
in the literature of The Beggar's Opera, Gargantua and Panta- 
gruel, Don Quixote, or the Commedia dell' Arte, laughter de- 
pends heavily upon characterization and the antics of char- 
acters who find themselves caught in a humorous situation. 
The Beggar's Opera, which Swift is ostensibly vindicating 
here against dull or affected critics, is a performance wherein, 
he says, the grotesque characters are wholly believable and 
move in a framework of recognizable satire. He is explicit in 
identifying humor with characterization and in isolating it as 
a natural taste that we can observe everywhere, "among com- 
mon servants, and the meanest of people, while the very 
owners are very often ignorant of the gift they possess." 
He is still more explicit in verses "To Mr. Delany," 1718: 

What humor is, not all the tribe 
Of logick-mongers can describe; 


Here, onely Nature acts her part, 
Unhelpt by practice, books, or art. 
For wit and humor differ quite, 
That gives surprise, and this delight: 
Humor is odd, grotesque, and wild, 
Onely by affectation spoild, 
Tis never by invention got, 
Men have it when they know it not. 


Though the Elizabethan "humors" of personification were 
going out of fashion in the eighteenth century, humor itself 
was a literary quality upon which the English prided them- 
selves, calling it native to their country. For them it was 
conversation or characterization that was natural, familiar, 
individual, and delightful. Dryden, in the Epilogue to The 
Wild Gallant, Revived, 1667, called humor "that which every 
day we meet"; Temple's "Of Poetry," 1690, described it as "a 
picture of a particular life"; and Congreve, in "Concerning 
Humour in Comedy," 1696, wrote: "I take it to be a singular 
and unavoidable manner of doing or saying anything peculiar 
and natural to one man only, by which his speech and actions 
are distinguished from those of other men." Such points of 
view very likely helped to form Swift's idea of an odd, native 
humor that we express even when we "know it not." He is so 
often described as a tormented genius whose skepticism be- 
came madness, that it is hard to remember he liked a joke 
better than most geniuses and that he loved la bagatelle, 
even seeking to use laughter as a weapon of reform. It was 
mirth for its own sake when he wrote "A Meditation upon a 
Broom-Stick, " rhymed "sorcery" with "horse awry," amused 
Stella with his "little language," devised riddles in rhyme to 
tease his friends, and turned the commonplace into funny 
verse. There is an underlying and over-all spirit of fun in 
Swift. When little Marjory Fleming confided to her Journal 
that "Doctor Swift's works are very funny & amusing & I get 
some by hart," she was at least as discerning as her elders 
to whom Swift's works seemed heartless. 




What there is to grin at in Swift's poetry often arises from 
characterization through monologue and dialogue ingeniously 
adapted to rhyme. His coolcmaids, noblemen, idle wives, 
clergymen, bookdealers, and politicians speak unmistakably 
in voices of their own. They ramble or superciliously con- 
descend, gabble, or protest in turn. 

We have a charming instance of Swift's ability with humor- 
ous monologue: almost as entertaining asLaetitia Pilkington's 
account of his running up one flight of stairs and down another 
for exercise, is her description of his "acting in character": 

The bottle and glasses being taken away, the Dean 
set about making the coffee; but the fire scorching 
his hand, he called to me to reach him his glove, 
and changing the coffee-pot to his left-hand, held out 
his right one, ordered me to put the glove on it, 
which accordingly I did; when taking up part of his 
gown to fan himself with, and acting in character of 
a prudish lady, he said, "Well, I do not know what 
to think; women may be honest that do such things, 
but, for my part, I never could bear to touch any 
man's flesh— except my husband's," whom perhaps, 
says he, she wished at the devil. 

In prose dialogue Swift is best represented by his Polite 
Conversation, which like his most characteristic work in both 
prose and poetry is not what it purports to be. No model and 
handbook of witty repartee, it mercilessly records the heavy- 
handed jests and horseplay, the warmed-over cynicism and 
tattle of Persons of Quality. Miss Notable, whose retorts are 
immediate and brisk, is the heroine of the piece; and she has 
the last word. At three in the morning when the company rises 
from the game of quadrille, Tom Neverout chooses from among 
the flowers of wit and language to remark, "Faith, I'm for 
Bedfordshire," and addresses Miss Notable with his unflag- 


ging insolence: "Miss, I hope you'll dream of your sweet- 
heart." "Oh, no doubt of it," says she: "I believe I shan't 
be able to sleep for dreaming of him." George Saintsbury con- 
fessed in The Peace of the Augustans that "One remains at 
the feet of Miss Notable; and is almost ashamed to babble 
about the idol." 

Even with the husks of her cliches lying about her, "Miss" 
charms the reader; and in rhyme Mrs. Frances Harris and Mary 
the Coolcmaid share her charm. Their doggerel depicts them 
clearly; they might have come this morning from the company 
of Fielding's Mrs. Honour, Mrs. Slipslop, and Molly Seagrim. 
They are drawn so truly that nymphs and dryads, dancing in 
flowery meadows, seem a plague in poetry indeed; and are not 
so prepossessing as this distressed waiting-woman and in- 
dignant cookraaid. "Lord! I thought I should have sunk out- 
right," "Pugh, said I," and "faith and troth!" they exclaim. 
To them the household details of life are all-important: they 
cannot speak without telling in specific detail how money is 
kept "in my pocket ty'd about my middle, next my smock," 
or how a day is remembered because "I was mending ray 
master's stocking." And they name names: Lady Betty, Mrs. 
Dukes, deaf Dame Wadgar, Lord Dromedary, Sister Marget, 
and the Dean. Obligingly, Mrs. Harris attempts to be legally 
exact in telling what sum of money she lost and what every- 
one said about her misfortune. Like the gentlefolk in Polite 
Conversation they appreciate the flavor of a well-tried phrase: 
"hardly ... slept a wink" and "I would not give such lang- 
uage to a dog..." Like all good folk they gladly throw out 
moral observations that "of all things in the world, I hate a 
thief," and "I am sure such words does not become a man of 
your cloth." Acting in character, providing them with the 
fiddle-faddle of homely detail, Swift has them speak humor- 
ously and believably. 

"To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of Ireland: The 
Humble Petition of Frances Harris, Who Must Starve, and Die 
a Maid if It Miscarries," 1701. was written while Swift was 
chaplain to Lord Berkeley in Ireland. Mrs. Harris, one of Lady 
Berkeley's waiting women, is distressed to tears over losing 
her purse with its "seven pound, four shillings and six pence, 


besides farthings, in money and gold": 

So next morning we told Whittle, and he fell a swearing; 
Then my Dame Wadgar came, and she, you know, is thick 

of hearing; 
Dame, said I, as loud as I could bawl, do you know what 

a loss I have had? 
Nay, said she, ray Lord Collway's folks are all very sad, 
For ray Lord Dromedary comes a Tuesday without fail; 
Pugh! said I, but that's not the business that I ail. 


From the valet, who can only curse, to Lord Berkeley him- 
self, all the household hears the story. But Mrs. Harris is 
seeking sympathy chiefly, for she has dreamed very specifi- 
cally that the money is in a rag in a corner of a box belonging 
to Mrs. Dukes, whom she approaches on the subject. Mrs. 
Dukes blesses herself, roars, and denies having seen the 
purse, leaving poor Mrs. Harris as wise as she was before. 
Her discourse with her favorite, the chaplain, is even less 
happy, for she calls him Parson and asks whether he can 
"cast a Nativity, when a body's plunder'd." He is annoyed 
and tells her so. 

With that, he twisted his girdle at me like a rope, as who 

should say, 
Now you may go hang your self for me, and so went away. 
Well; I thought I should have swoon'd: Lord, said I, what 

shall I do? 
I have lost my money, and I shall lose ray true-love too. 


And so Mrs. Harris submits her petition to the Lords Justices 
of Ireland, one of whom is her employer, requesting "a share 
in next Sunday's collection..." Further, while she is making 
requests, she asks for conferment of orders upon the chap- 
lain, unless, she casually adds, an even more attractive chap- 
lain can be found: 

And then your poor petitioner, both night and day, 


Or the chaplain, (for 'tis his trade) as in duty bound, shall 
ever pray. 


Here Mrs. Harris is wonderfully parenthetical. Mary the 
Cookmaid is more direct, more simple-minded, and less at 
ease with a pen, more apt to blunder into garbled phrases 
like "parsonable man" and "come-rogues." She was Swift's 
own cook, towards the end of his life, a robust woman with a 
pockmarked face and addressed by him as "Sweetheart." 
"Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter to Dr. Sheridan," 1718 -in- 
cluded in W.H. Auden's Oxford Book of Light Verse— ia the 
best known of the roguish rhymes exchanged in Swift's Irish 
circle. Sheridan had been called a goose; in retaliation he 
called Swift a knave; to reply, Swift acts in character to be- 
come Mary the Cookmaid, praising her master. 

He has more goodness in his little finger, than you have 

in your whole body, 
My master is a parsonable man, and not a spindle-shank'd 


Every body knows, that I love to tell truth and shame the 

the devil, 
I am but a poor servant, but I think gentle folks should be 

Besides, you found fault with our vittles one day that you 

was here, 
I remember it was upon a Tuesday, of all days in the year. 

(9-10, 23-26) 

First of all, laughingly, Swift is using Mrs. Harris's voice 
and Mary's to express something without seeming to; then 
through their voices he suggests vividly their actual pre- 
sences, their accusing eyes, their frowns, their fingers grasp- 
ing the pen-quill; and third, he has them speak in a rambling 
tattle of inventive humor, never for a syllable slipping out of 
character. His ear for the wandering cadence of speech and 
his eye for funny portraits worked together to create in these, 
as in his other verses meant to be giggled at, an odd batch of 


rhymes and rhythms.* When Thomas Hardy tried the same sort 
of thing in "The Chapel Organist," "In the Servants* Quar- 
ters," and other long-lined monologues and dialogues, he for 
once lacked the ingenuity of Swift, of whom William Hazlitt 
wrote in appreciation: "He has gone so far as to invent a new 
stanza of fourteen and sixteen syllable lines for Mary the 
cookmaid to vent her budget of nothings, and for Mrs. Harris 
to gossip with the deaf old housekeeper." Other critics regret 
that he did not more often find time for this very attractive 
kind of doggerel: it proves, they say, that he did not have to 
be unpleasant in what he wrote. 

There is no more humor in his indulgent pretense of being 
a cookmaid than there is in his pretense in rhyme of speaking 
for an idle lady of fashion. But, partly because they do not 
warm the heart, but rather chill it, Swift's tenser, more biting 
lines, in which ladies of quality vent their budgets of nothing, 
do not so often find admirers. A society of fashionably dressed, 
charmless ladies moves noisily through Swift's writing: they 
are the Lady Smart and Lady Answerall of Polite Conversa- 
tion; the "tribe of bold, swaggering, rattling ladies" of "A 
Letter to a Young Lady on her Marriage"; the Brobdingnagian 
maids of honor; the silly recipient of "Verses Wrote in a 
Lady's Ivory Table Book"; Phillis in "The Progress of 
Love," who would "heave her bosom" in church for "beaux 
to see it bare"; the gadabout wife in "The Progress of Mar- 
riage," wearing "French brocades and Flanders lace"; and 
the smart lady who "calls it witty to be rude" in "The Fur- 
niture of a Woman's Mind." They talk and talk and talk; in 
"The Journal of a Modern Lady," 1729, Swift describes the 
din they raise: 

Now voices over voices rise; 
While each to be the loudest vies, 
They contradict, affirm, dispute, 
No single tongue one moment mute; 

•Were Swift's long-lined gabbling poems inspired by the High 
Church service, which also has long clauses that are gabbled 
off hurriedly until they reach a rhythmical and logical pause? 
I owe this ingenious suggestion to Professor Gilbert Highet. 


All mad to speak, and none to hearken, 
They set the very lap-dog barking; 
Their chattering makes a louder din 
Than fish-wives o'er a cup of gin: 
Not school-boys at a barring-out, 
Rais'd ever such incessant rout: 
The jumbling particles of matter 
In chaos made not such a clatter: 
Far less the rabble roar and rail, 
When drunk with sour election ale. 


There is not much variety or much that scintillates in what 
they have to say: they are descendants of the Earl of Roch- 
ester's indefatigable talkers in "Tunbridge Wells" and an- 
cestresses of T.S. Eliot's "Doris," who drew the coffin when 
she cut the cards and kept talking about it. Swift's card-play- 
ing ladies, who spend the night at quadrille, are immortally 
represented by the "female friends" in the verses on his 
death; in "The Journal of a Modern Lady" they are equally 
indefatigable in conversation: 

"This morning when the parson came, 
"I said I should not win a game. 
"This odious chair how came I stuck in't, 
"I think I never had good luck in't. 
"I'm so uneasy in my stays; 
"Your fan, a moment, if you please. 
"Stand further girl, or get you gone. 
"I always lose when you look "on. 

This is, in effect, Polite Conversation in verse, with the de- 
light of humor and recognition augmented by rhyme and rhythm. 
The tone is shriller when the "glitt'ring dames" are heard in 
"Cadenus and Vanessa": 

Their clamour 'lighting from their chairs, 
Grew louder, all the way up stairs . . . 

I'm sorry Mopsa breaks so fast; 


I said her face would never last. 
Corinna with that youthful air, 
Is thirty, and a bit to spare. 
Her fondness for a certain earl 
Began, when I was but a girl. 

They railly'd next Vanessa's dress: 
That gown was made for old Queen Bess. 
Dear Madam, let me set your head: 
Don't you intend to put on red? 

(368-369, 386-391, 396-399) 

Eighteenth-century fops with their "soft voice and speech 
absurd" are portrayed similarly in "Cadenus and Vanessa" 
and elsewhere; but when Swift acted in character, it was the 
"incessant rout" of fine ladies that he most outrageously 

Humorous characterization of poets, parsons, statesmen, 
lawyers, and soldiers is fitted to the pattern of monologue and 
dialogue in many of Swift's verses. In "Richmond-Lodge and 
Marble-Hill," 1727, there is even a pastoral dialogue between 
two houses in the manner of Thomas Hardy's "The Two 
Houses," "The Aged Newspaper Soliloquizes," and "Haunt- 
ing Fingers," in which musical instruments talk in the night. 
Swift's rhymes on poets and parsons were often autobiograph- 
ical; but he wrote with distrust and dislike of statesmen in 
many verses, best perhaps in "Ireland," from the "Holyhead 
Journal," 1727; of lawyers in "The Answer to 'Paulus'," 
1728; and of soldiers in "The Grand Question Debated," 1729. 
All are described, with an intensity that excludes humor, in an 
imitation of Petronius, "On Dreams," 1724: 

The statesman rakes the town to find a plot, 
And dreams of forfeitures by treason got. 

Orphans around his bed the lawyer sees, 
And takes the plaintiff's and defendant's fees. 

The soldier smiling hears the widows' cries, 
And stabs the son before the mother's eyes. 

(19-20, 23-24, 15-16) 


In "The Grand Question Debated," sometimes called "A 
Soldier and a Scholar," there is delightful characterization of 
a captain as he is imagined by a lady's maid: we first watch 
his arrival and then share his conversation at dinner: 

See, now comes the Captain all dawb'd with gold lace: 

Oh law! the sweet gentleman! look in his face; 

And see how he rides like a lord of the land, 

With the fine flaming sword that he holds in his hand . . . 

"To give a young gentleman right education, 
"The Army's the only good school in the nation; 
"My school-master cali'd me a dunce and a fool, 
"But at cuffs I was always the cock of the school; 
"I never cou'd take to my book for the blood o'me, 
"And the puppy confess'd, he expected no good o'me. 
"He caught me one morning coquetting his wife, 
"But he maul'd me, I ne'er was so maul'd in my life; 
"So, I took to the road, and what's very odd, 
"The first man I robb'd was a parson by G— . 
"Now Madam, you'll think it a strange thing to say, 
"But, the sight of a book makes me sick to this day. 

(93-96, 161-172) 

Read alongside the breathless gabble of fashionable ladies, 
this captain's gross, deliberate, egotistic monologue seems 
an admirable example of Swift's acting in character. It is 
bright humor from a cynic and misanthrope who knew that it 
was too late for him to turn serious. 


Swift's humorous characterization of personal relationships 
may best be seen in verses addressed to three women: "Van- 
essa," "Stella," and "Daphne." When Swift wrote with 
tenderness and affection he wrote, as an honest poet should, 
most warily of the artificial phrase, the false-sounding note, 
and the extravagance that rings of insincerity. Because roman- 


tic, passionate ecstasy seemed to him a subject for burlesque, 
his own tender sentiments were usually expressed quietly in 
humorous understatement or hidden in raillery. Much of the 
interest in his affectionate verses, therefore, lies in seeing 
how expertly he wrote within the constraining bounds he set 
for himself. 

Perhaps because it seems almost conventionally tender, 
"Cadenus and Vanessa,*' 1713, the longest of all the poems 
and least characteristic of the important ones, has sometimes 
been considered the height of Swift's accomplishment in 
rhyme. When Goldsmith described it as one of the author's 
correctest pieces, he explained its good reception; for though 
the subject matter itself is somewhat odd, the treatment is 
fashionable and elegantly formal with a glossy film of urban- 
ity meant to flatter the romantic girl for whom the poem was 
written. Esther Vanhomrigh, according to Dr. Johnson, was 
"a woman made unhappy by her admiration of wit, and ignomin- 
iously distinguished by the name of Vanessa... She was a 
young woman fond of literature, whom Decanus the Dean, 
called Cadenus by transposition of the letters, took pleasure 
in directing and instructing; till, from being proud of his 
praise, she grew fond of his person." This is the substance 
of the poem itself, in which Swift has the girl finally under- 
take to instruct her teacher in matters of love, though with 
what success the reader is coyly kept from learning. Within 
its elaborate framework of goddesses, cupids, shepherds, har- 
nessed doves, and long pleas heard by the Queen of Love, 
Vanessa's little story is almost lost in the paper lace of an 
unwieldy valentine. Because the talent of Swift lay rather in 
the composition of comic valentines touched with genius- 
more like Michelangelo's cartoons than the f£tes charapStres 
of Watteau— this poem seems written in a borrowed language 
at which Swift usually laughed. It is not mock- but pseudo- 
classical. Herbert Davis has noted that on another occasion, 
perhaps in the same year, Swift wrote a briefer poem in the 
same vein: the chaste goddesses and ravished youths of the 
verses "To Lord Harley, on his Marriage" are also pseudo- 
classical in spirit. 

The opening lines of "Cadenus and Vanessa" remind the 


reader of fanciful songs by an elegant and tiresome poet like 
the Countess of Winchilsea: 

The shepherds and the nymphs were seen 
Pleading before the Cyprian Queen. 
The council for the fair began, 
Accusing that false creature, Man. 


The case being pleaded is to determine whether men or women 
are more responsible for the faults of modern love (1-125); 
Judge Venus, calling a recess, experiments with a "wondrous" 
nymph, Vanessa, who is endowed with male virtues (126-303); 
but Vanessa does not attract suitors and is herself disdainful 
of society, preferring to read Montaigne (304-464); Cupid fixes 
her affection upon her tutor, Cadenus (465-827); and when the 
law case is resumed, Venus's decree is against the men, who 
were too tasteless to appreciate Vanessa (828-889). 

Andreas Capellanus's account of medieval Courts of Love, 
adapted to suit the Age of Reason, if such a thing can be 
imagined, would probably resemble this poem. Much of its 
humor comes from the intrusion of worldly things into a celes- 
tial scene, as when the verses of Cowley and Waller are con- 
sulted for authority in Heaven. The disparity in age between 
the young Vanessa and her somewhat cynical old tutor lends 
further amusement. But when he describes the proper educa- 
tion for a sensible young woman in a world of fops and quad- 
rille, Swift's intention is more serious. Except for a discourse 
on "modern love" in lines 21-66 the first characteristically 
Swiftian passage is that in which Venus praises Vanessa, the 
model girl: 

Offending daughters oft would hear 
Vanessa's praise rung in their ear: 
Miss Betty, when she does a fault, 
Lets fall her knife, or spills the salt, 
Will then be by her mother chid, 
44 'Tis what Vanessa never did. 


In its courtly setting this homely detail did not please Taine, 
for the very reason that it is characteristic of Swift: "Singu- 
lie*re facjon d'admirer Vanessa et de lui prouver qu'on l'admire! 
Je l'appelle nymphe et la traite en ecoliere." But in these 
octosyllabic couplets Swift excels, just as Chaucer excels in 
the octosyllabic couplets of even so allegorical a poem as 
"The House of Fame," when he is most original, humorous, 
homely, and explicit. When "Cadenus and Vanessa" is at its 
best , in the fashionable fops' "tattle of the day" and the 
ladies' "usual chat," it resembles the verses on Swift's death, 
and is very good indeed. 

The poem was probably given to Vanessa in 1713, went from 
hand to hand, caused scandalized whispers, and was in 1726 
published without Swift's consent, causing him some embar- 
rassment because of what it revealed. Still more would have 
been revealed in complementary verses he suggested to 
Vanessa in 1720: 

There would be the chapter of Madam going to Ken- 
sington; the chapter of the blister; the chapter of the 
Colonel going to France; the chapter of the wedding, 
with the adventures of the lost key; of the sham; of 
the joyful return; two hundred chapters of madness; 
the chapter of long walks; the Berkshire surprise; 
fifty chapters of little times; the chapter of Chelsea; 
the chapter of swallow and cluster; a hundred whole 
books of myself, etc.; the chapter of hide and whis- 
per; the chapter of who made it so; ray sister's money. 

These tantalizing chapters were never written, and by 1723, 
when Vanessa died, she had broken with Swift entirely, and 
he was sorry he had written "Cadenus and Vanessa"j "It 
was," he wrote in the year it was first published, "a task 
performed in a frolic among some ladies." 

He would not have dismissed so summarily the poems to 
Stella, usually addressed to her year by year on her birthdays. 
They contain his most gravely musical, most affecting phrases. 
When, in 1726, he received news of her serious illness, he 
wrote, almost out of control of his emotions, to James Stop- 
ford: "Dear Jim, pardon me, I know not what I am saying; but 


believe me that violent friendship is much more lasting, and 
as much engaging, as violent love." But in his poems to 
Stella, Swift always knew what he was saying and was never 
violent, no matter how great his devotion or how warm the 
regard he expressed. In one of the poems he reminded her 
that he had never sung of "Cupid's darts," "killing eyes," 
and "bleeding hearts," but that he had been honest and 
truthful in his praise of her as his friend. "Truth," he told 
her, "shines the brighter, clad in verse." It does shine bright 
in delightful verses like those "To Stella, Visiting Me in My 
Sickness," 1720: 

For Stella never learn'd the art, 
At proper times to scream and start; 
Nor calls up all the house at night, 
And swears she saw a thing in white. 
Doll never flies to cut her lace, 
Or throw cold water in her face, 
Because she heard a sudden drum, 
Or found an earwig in a plum. 

Like phrases from Shakespearean song, the last couplet here 
combines rich sound and an impression of bright detail. The 
beat of "hearD a suDDen Drum" is as capably handled as are 
the blunted vowels that follow in "OR FOUND an EARwig in a 
PLUM." These two unpretentious lines are hardly inferior to 
those by Herrick that Edith Sitwell singles out to praise for 
their beauty, remarking on the artful effect of repeated s's, 
echoes, and fruit-shapes in the names "pear" and "plum"; 

So silently they one to th' other come, 

As colours steal into the pear or plum. 

(Herrick, "Lovers: How They 

Come and Part," 5-6) 

There would be loss of melody, certainly, if Herrick had 
written, in Swift's brisker, shorter lines, something like this: 

So silent they together come 
As colours steal in pear or plum. 


But there would be only a stuffing of syllables and loss of 
directness if Swift, in his poem to Stella, had used Herrick's 
length of line: 

Because she heard a sudden sound of drum, 
Or found an earwig in a bitten plum. 

The six lines next quoted, from the same poem to Stella, 
beginning with "When on my sickly couch I lay," seem as 
musical as the six from Wordsworth beginning "For oft, when 
on my couch I lie." Still writing with honesty joined to feel- 
ing, and without recourse to song-book language, Swift at- 
tains a quality of music in what he says: 

When on my sickly couch I lay, 
Impatient both of night and day, 
Lamenting in unmanly strains, 
Call'd ev'ry pow'r to ease my pains, 
Then Stella ran to my relief 
With chearful face, and inward grief. . . 


These lines move with continuous sound; but in lines that 
follow, the couplets are closed with barriers that require 
suspension of the voice. The quiet phrases of "Now, with a 
soft and silent tread" are especially slow because of substi- 
tution of a stress, "Now," and the pause that accompanies it: 

My sinking spirits now supplies 
With cordials in her hands, and eyes. 
Now, with a soft and silent tread, 
Unheard she moves about my bed. 
I see her taste each nauseous draught, 
And so obligingly am caught: 
I bless the hand from whence they came, 
Nor dare distort ray face for shame. 


There is stronger praise in the poem, but it is no more lyrical 
than in these lines with their undercurrent of emotion. But 
however passionate or serious he may feel, there is still in 
Swift a wonderful sense of the absurd, as in the very gentle, 


wry couplet last quoted. 

Sometimes, in these poems to Stella, Swift is gracefully 
complimentary, saying for instance, in "Stella's Birthday, 
March 13, 1719," that if it pleased the gods to split her into 
two women as lovely as she, he would beg that his worship 
for her might also be divided. This courtly conceit seems 
honest and convincing in part because the poem opens with 
deliberately flat, humorously unromantic lines: 

Stella this day is thirty-four, 

(We shan't dispute a year or more) . . . 

Again, humorously, he compares her to the Angel Inn, so at- 
tractive and virtuous that it is popular even when it grows 
old and its sign needs paint; like Stella's, it is an "angel's 
face, a little crack'd." Or, when she is to go to the country 
for her health, he compares her to a famished cow that, sent 
to graze, becomes plump and vigorous again. There is an 
affectionate, humorous concern that lends to these poems a 
warmth and melody. These are qualities that can be felt and 
heard even in the pleasant little tribute "To Stella, Who Col- 
lected and Transcribed His Poems," 1720: 

As when a lofty pile is rais'd, 
We never hear the workmen prais'd, 
Who bring the lime, or place the stones; 
But all admire Inigo Jones: 
So if this pile of scatter'd rhymes 
Should be approv'd in after-times, 
If it both pleases and endures, 
The merit and the praise are yours. 


Of all these poems the last, "Stella's Birthday, March 13, 
1727," written less than a year before her death, best repre- 
sents Swift's own reserved kind of love-verse in which he in- 
corporated wit, tenderness, grace, and neatness as Andrew 
Marveil, for instance, did at his best: 

This day, whate'er the fates decree, 
Shall still be kept with joy by me: 


This day then, let us not be told, 
That you are sick, and I grown old, 
Nor think on our approaching ills, 
And talk of spectacles and pills; 
To morrow will be time enough 
To hear such mortifying stuff. 


Indeed, "To morrow will be Time enough / To hear such mort- 
ifying Stuff" could without alteration conceivably have come 
from the side of Marvell's "Had we but World enough, and 
Time." Like Marvell, Swift can here be praised for ingenuity, 
exactness, and glib freshness of phrase. There is no amuse- 
ment from a blunt reminder of Stella's age or from a far-fetched 
comparison to an undernourished cow; but the effect is more 
certain when spectacles and pills are transformed into sym- 
bols (in the manner of the Mirror, Clock, and Smile of W.H. 
Auden) for Swift's increasing years and Stella's infirmities. 
Harold Williams was perhaps thinking especially of those 
lines when he described the poem as "tender and beautiful." 
With its "Me, surely me" the conclusion brings a note ex- 
tremely personal and hardly "Swiftian": 

then, whatever Heav'n intends, 
Take pity on your pitying friends; 
Nor let your ills affect your mind, 
To fancy they can be unkind. 
Me, surely me, you ought to spare, 
Who gladly would your suff rings share; 
Or give ray scrap of life to you, 
And think it far beneath your due; 
You, to whose care so oft I owe, 
That I'm alive to tell you so. 

Throughout the years of their relationship Swift wished 
Stella to be admired not so much for her beauty, or even for 
her devotion, as for her independence and wit. For the very 
reason that he loved her, he wilfully circumscribed her free- 
dom and kept a jealous guard upon her mind. But he never- 


theless imagined her as the New Woman of the middle class, 
like Jane Austen later in the century, whose wit could support 
her in conversation with the most learned or elegant gentlemen. 
The poems to Stella are the only sort that could conceivably 
have been addressed to such a woman as Jane Austen. Any 
man with temerity to proffer affectionate rhymes to the author 
of Emma would have made certain that they were first of all 
humorous, witty, and wise. 

Of a very different sort are the many humorous poems Swift 
wrote for "Daphne," Lady Acheson, during his long visits at 
Market Hill, near Armagh, in the north of Ireland in 1728, 1729, 
and 1730. He had known her father, the Right Hon. Philip 
Savage, and now made himself disconcertingly at home with 
her and her husband, Sir Arthur, who was high sheriff for his 
county. Swift rearranged their gardens, punished their ser- 
vants, corrected Lady Acheson, and came down to dinner only 
when he pleased. After his eight-months-long first visit he 
wrote to Pope of his entertainment in the country, where, he 
said, he was tutor to his "perfectly well bred" hostess and 
wrote "family verses of mirth by way of libels on my Lady." 
They were libels composed of banter, pleasantry stuck through 
with satire, and the humorous raillery he had commended in 
his poem "To Mr. Delany." Conversation at its best, he had 
said, combines wit and humor to create the raillery in which 
the French excel; it was Voiture, he pointed out, who turned 
irony into praise and "first found out the rule / For an oblig- 
ing ridicule." Libels and "obliging ridicule" provided an 
evening's entertainment for Lady Acheson, her husband, and 
their guests: it was an honor to be insulted by the Dean. 

In "The Journal of a Modern Lady," 1729, he wickedly de- 
scribes the annals of a day in Lady Acheson's life: how she 
is awakened at noon to be reminded of last night's losses at 
quadrille; takes her tea and cream; is almost dressed by four; 
bores the dinner-guests with her stale conversation; gossips 
over the evening tea; and plays quadrille again, pausing only 
to gobble supper, until the watchman cries: "A frosty morn- 
past four a-clock." The card-playing ladies leave at last, 
and their hostess, 

With empty purse, and aching head, 


Steals to her sleeping spouse to bed. 


Those verses are a museum in which details of eighteenth- 
century upper-class life are preserved; and they are humorous 
verses even when they are least kindly. Later, when Swift 
had broken his friendship with Sir Arthur and Lady Acheson, 
he wrote of her in prose that has no humor: "She is an abso- 
lute Dublin rake, sits up late, loses her money, and goes to 
bed sick." While he was still her friend, the Dean of St. Pat- 
rick's could banter; no longer her friend, he was stern and 

The vivacious verses of "My Lady's Lamentation," 1728, 
are even more personal than those of the "Journal"; Swift 
makes Lady Acheson describe herself grotesquely in lines 
almost Skeltonic: 

From shoulder to flank 
I'm lean and am lank; 
My nose, long and thin, 
Grows down to ray chin; 
My chin will not stay, 
But meets it half way; 
My fingers, prolix, 
Are ten crooked sticks . . . 

When my elbows he sees 
Held up by my knees, 
My arms, like two props, 
Supporting my chops, 
And just as I handle 'em 
Moving all like a pendulum; 
He trips up my props, 
And down my chin drops, 
From my head to my heels, 
Like a clock without wheels; 
I sink in the spleen, 
An useless machine. 
(71-78, 25-36) 


Phrases swing back and forth like a skeleton on a string until 
the rhythm is broken by added syllables in "handle 'em" and 
" pendulum," and everything clatters down in a heap, its mo* 
tion spent. 

Most humorously imaginative of the "comic valentines" for 
Lady Acheson is "Death and Daphne, To an Agreeable Young 
Lady, but Extremely Lean," 1730, a fable that tells how 
Death wishes to mate with Daphne, who herself, somewhat 
startlingly, makes the first advance; and how Death hastens 
to leave her when he finds her more deathlike than he: 

Pluto observing, since the Peace, 
The burial article decrease; 
And, vext to see affairs miscarry, 
Declar'd in council, Death must marry: 
Vow'd, he no longer could support 
Old batchelors about his court . . . 

She, as he came into the room, 
Thought him Adonis in his bloom. 
And now her heart with pleasure jumps, 
She scarce remembers what is trumps. 
For, such a shape of skin and bone 
Was never seen, except her own . . . 
(7-12, 57-62) 

When Death places his finger on Daphne's dry, cold hand, the 
"frighted spectre" *s thoughts of marriage freeze. The lady 
Swift elsewhere called "perfectly well bred" is here, for the 
fun of it, the subject of macabre insult in language of bur- 
lesque. Unlike Wordsworth's, whose "heart with pleasure 
fills" or poetically "leaps up," Daphne's foolish "heart with 
pleasure jumps," as though it were a nervous rabbit. 

Even though the chiding poem called "Daphne," 1730, had 
previously been included under the heading of Market Hill, it 
was not until Williams's edition of the poems that the "ex- 
tremely lean" heroine of "Death and Daphne" was identified 
in print as Lady Acheson. Until then, Daphne was unaccount- 
ably supposed to be the sensation-loving Mrs. Pilkington, 
whose portrait by Hone shows a pretty charmer, bosomy and 


far from lean. In his Remarks Lord Orrery does not name her, 
but tells how he once heard "Death and Daphne" read, in 
Swift's presence, by the lady in question. Unable to appreciate 
its raillery, he could not believe the poem pleased her as 
much as she insisted, until Swift "burst into a fit of laughter. 
'You fancy,' says he, 'that you are very polite, but you are 
much mistaken. That lady had rather be a Daphne drawn by 
me, than a Sacharissa by any other pencil.'" Still incredulous, 
but falling in with the game, Orrery says he whispered to the 
lady to flatter her, when he took her hand, that it was indeed 
"as dry and cold as lead" as the poem describes. Orrery's 
annotation in his copy of the Remarks, now in the library of 
Harvard University, does identify Daphne: alongside his ac- 
count of her, he has written: "Lady Atchison, wife of Sir 
Arthur Atchison. Separated from her husband." Accepting this 
notation as authority for what now seems obvious, Williams 
places the poem among all the other "family verses of mirth" 
from Market Hill. 

Sometimes, understandably, Lady Acheson sighed for poetic 
prettiness and beribboned flattery that did not accompany her 
rude caricatures and comic valentines. In "An Epistle to a 
Lady, Who Desired the Author to Make Verses on Her, in the 
Heroick Stile," 1733, Swift acts in character to have her plead 
for loftier, gentler words: 

But, I beg, suspend a while, 
That same paultry burlesque stile: 
Drop, for once, your constant rule, 
Turning «)1 to ridicule . . . 

Sing my praise in strain sublime: 
Treat me not with doggrel rhime. 

(49-52, 57-58) 

But he has a refusal ready for her. His flattery has been spent 
on Vanessa, his affection has been addressed to Stella, and 
Daphne is to hear only raillery and must be pleased with that: 

Thus, I find it by experiment, 


Scolding moves you less than merriment. 

I may storm and rage in vain; 

It but stupifies your brain. 

But, with raillery to nettle, 

Set your thoughts upon their mettle: 

Gives your imagination scope, 

Never lets your mind elope: 

Drives out brangling, and contention, 

Brings in reason and invention. 

For your sake, as well as mine, 

I the lofty stile decline. 



Poems for other friends, though usually easy and smooth, 
capable and adequate, do not have so much to recommend them 
as those for Vanessa, Stella, and Daphne. They are all alike, 
however, in drawing humor and delight from Swift's acting in 
character, just as all his poems of wit are based on surprise 
of situation or language. The poems addressed to Harley, Lord 
Oxford, borrow some of the urbanity of Horace, whom they 
imitate; and in them Swift draws an amusing portrait of him- 
self. In "Part of the Seventh Epistle of the First Book of 
Horace Imitated," 1713, Harley assumes the role of the patron 
Philippus, and Vulteius is Swift. Ruined by the "Dues, pay- 
ments, fees, demands and cheats" that accompany his pa- 
tron's bounty, he pleads to be restored to his simple way of 
living. He describes himself in this poem as he was first seen 
at a bookstall by Harley, who insisted upon befriending him. 
It is a portrait of himself as he thought, or hoped, he im- 
pressed others, with "some humour in his face," "an easy, 
careless mien," and an inclination to do what he pleased. 

"An Imitation of the Sixth Satire of the Second Book of 
Horace," 1714, to which Pope made additions, is also con- 
cerned with Harley's patronage but has most to say about 


Swift himself. Except for the noisy, name-calling passages 
that Addison deleted from "Baucis and Philemon" this is the 
first of the poems in which Swift, for humorous effect, has 
people talking interruptedly in clamorous speeches, like bees 
"humming in my ears." It begins with a nostalgic picture of 
his desire for a handsome house in the country and comfort- 
able means to maintain it— and then contrasts this with the 
hectic "jostle" of the life at court. Among the most enter- 
taining lines, reminiscent of noblemen's gossip recorded by 
Proust, are those that set down the great Harley's trivial 

'Tis (let me see) three years and more, 
(October next, it will be four) 
Since Harley bid tne first attend, 
And chose me for an humble friend: 
Would take me in his coach to chat, 
And question me of this and that; 
As, "What's a-clock?'* And, "How's the wind? 
"Whose chariot's that we left behind? 
Or gravely try to read the lines 
Writ underneath the country signs; 
Or, "Have you nothing new today 
"From Pope, from Parnel, or from Gay? 


Although this parenthetical, colloquial, ironic passage can 
be immediately identified as the work of Swift, it follows 
closely after Horace's description of Maecenas. 

Horace is again the model for the poem "To the Earl of 
Oxford, Late Lord Treasurer. Sent to Him When He Was in the 
Tower, Before His Tryal," 1716. This is a conscientiously 
faithful rendering of a portion of Ode 2, Dook III, beginning 
with the line Wilfred Owen denounced as a lie: "Dulce et 
decorum est pro patria mori." For Swift, hoping to give cour- 
age to Harley after his impeachment, the line becomes: 

How blest is he, who for his country dies . . . 

Under a separate heading of foolery, volatility, raillery, and 
fun are the verses addressed to Thomas Sheridan, Swift's 


Irish crony and the grandfather of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. 
For something like twenty-five years the two men exchanged 
flurries of rhymed letters, riddles, libels, pasquinades, and 
trifles that must have been entertaining to send and receive, 
though they often seem like naughty boys' tablet drawings in 
Williams's edition of the poems, where they incongruously 
appear in handsome format with numbered lines and scholarly 
head- and footnotes. Silly as they generally are under solemn 
consideration, they nevertheless include the charming "Mary 
the Cook-Maid's Letter to Dr. Sheridan" and two or three 
other items worth reading once. They are intentionally and 
boastfully off-hand pieces: to one of them, thirty-eight lines 
long, Swift appended the casual note: "Written, sign'd, and 
seal'd, five minutes and eleven seconds after the receipt of 
yours, allowing seven seconds for sealing and superscribing, 
from my bed-side, just 11 minutes after 11, Sept. 15th 1718." 
And to another he added: "I beg your pardon for using my left 
hand, but I was in great haste, and the other hand was em- 
ployed at the same time in writing some letters of business." 
Experiment with rhyme and verse-form, usually tried first by 
Sheridan and improved upon by Swift, is constant and, seen 
all together, wearisome. But one of Swift's inventions is worth 
setting down. Ancestry for the strained, prosy verses of Ogden 
Nash and for W.S. Gilbert's "Lost Mr. Blake" can be seen in 
the long, laughing, suspended lines of the letter "From Dr. 
Swift to Dr. Sheridan, Dec. 14, 1719, 9 at Night": 

It is impossible to know by your letter whether the wine 

is to be bottled to-morrow, or no. 
If it be, or be not, why did not you in plain English tell 

us so? 
For my part, it was by meer chance I came back to sit 

with the ladies this night. 
And, if they had not told me there was a letter from you, 

and your man Alexander had not gone, and come back 

from the Deanery, and the boy here had not been sent 

to let Alexander know I was here, I should have missed 

the letter outright. 



As the letter continues, rolling out lines like carpets, such 
devil-may-care rhymes as "vengeance" / "ten jaunts'* fur- 
ther resemble the deliberate distortions of Gilbert and Nash 
with their "lot of news" / "hypotenuse," "pelican" / "un- 
Amelican," and "overemphasis" / "Memphasis." 


For humor and mirth in what he wrote, Swift's best subject 
is himself. Meticulously self-effacing in his prose, he goes 
out of his way in poem after poem to name himself as "Dr. 
S— t," "the Drapier," "Cadenus," or "the Dean." He writes 
of his indignation, illness, disgust, and despair in resigned 
amusement, less from any wish to be funny than simply be- 
cause it is "too late to turn serious now." 

Self-consciously, in "The Author upon Himself," 1714, 
he tries to catch a reflection or to invent a portrait of the 
character with which he wishes to be identified: 

S(wift) had the sin of wit, no venial crime; 
Nay, 'twas affirm'd, he sometimes dealt in rhirae: 
Humour, and mirth, had place in all he writ: 
He reconcil'd divinity and wit. 

He mov'd, and bow'd, and talk't with too much grace; 
Nor shew'd the parson in his gait or face; 
Despis'd luxurious wines, and costly meat; 
Yet, still was at the tables of the great. 
Frequented lords; saw those that saw the Queen; 
At Child's or Truby's never once had been; 
Where town and country vicars flock in tribes, 
Secur'd by numbers from the lay-men's gibes; 
And deal in vices of the graver sort, 
Tobacco, censure, coffee, pride, and port. 



The last couplet is humorously ironic in its clever dove-tail- 
ing of coffeehouse "vices" as abstract as the show of pride 
and tangible enough to be drunk or stuffed into a pipe. A later 
couplet in the poem provides a nice impression of court pol- 
itics and intrigue, in which Swift was a figure sufficiently in- 
fluential to be caressed by candidates and lords. It is a blend- 
ing of the fastidious and gross, the courtly and vulgar; and 
the pause after the first syllable in each line gives the effect 
of a burlesqued minuet or a courtier's affected hesitation: 

Now, Delawere again familiar grows; 
And, in Swift's ear thrusts half his powder' d nose. 


This independent, graceful, worldly, humorous Swift, whether 
wholly real or in part imaginary, is sometimes transformed into 
another Swift of dark, animal force and invective humor. The 
following lines from "Holyhead, M 1727, are among those he 
wrote in a note-book while awaiting passage to Dublin, where 
Stella lay ill. Suavity and refinement give way to impatience 
with the irony of the situation: 

Lo here I sit at holy head 
With muddy ale and mouldy bread 
All Christian vittals stink of fish 
I'm where my enemyes would wish 

I never was in hast before 

To reach that slavish hateful shore 

Before, I always found the wind 

To me was most malicious kind 

But now the danger of a friend 

On whom my fears and hopes depend 

Absent from whom all Clymes are curst 

With whom I'm happy in the worst 

With rage impatient makes me wait 

A passage to the land I hate. 

(1-4, 19-29) 

"Lo," in the first line, seems more an ironic pun on the word 
"low," to describe Swift's state of mind, than it does an in- 


terjection. Asking to be beheld at his worst, he makes "ale," 
"bread," and "fish" turn dismal by contaminating them with 
"mud," "mould," and "stink." The second line is almost too 
pleasant to the ear to suit its intention, but the third is mar- 
velously ugly with its spit-out i*s: "All Christian vlttals 
stink of fish." The scorn that falls on the word "fish" gives 
it the heaviest emphasis in the first couplets. Any attempt 
to "normalize" these remarkable lines would be as ill-ad- 
vised as the inevitable presumption, two hundred years from 
now, of patient editors who will "normalize" the poems of 
E.E. Cummings and Dylan Thomas. To alter is sometimes to 
spoil; and to replace "holy head" with the proper "Holy- 
head" would shift the rhyme-stress to "mouldy" in the second 
line, and would be absurd. The spelling here is a part of 

Style does not especially distinguish other autobiographical 
poems like "In Sickness," 1714, "The Dean to Himself on St. 
Cecilia's Day," 1730, "The "Dean and Duke," 1734, or even 
the deft little verses on "The Author's Manner of Living." 
But it becomes an important consideration in the famous 
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." More than for almost any 
other important poem in English, there has been difficulty 
here in separating style from subject-matter and poem from 
poet. The poem has exploitation of language, genuine rhetor- 
ical power, reasonable irony, dry humor, and particularized 
observations on the way human beings act. There is an aston- 
ishing, teasing marriage of destructive satire and creative 
poetry. Even if the verses could be read without biographical 
concern, or with minimal concern for the poet's personality, 
they would still impress the reader. If, however, Swift's 
famous couplet 

Poor Pope will grieve a month; and Gay 
A week; and Arbuthnott a day 

had been written by some little-known eighteenth-century 
churchman named Dr. Shift, how famous would it now be? The 
lines would sag limply in "Verses on the Death of Dr. Shift" 
if they read like this: 

Poor Polk will grieve a month; and Jay 


A week; and Higglesby a day. 

Knowledge of Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot, whom Swift names 
in his couplet, lends something to the lines, but not every- 
thing, as the ugly-sounding substitutions make clear. Swift's 
repeated p's in "Poor Pope," his alliteration in "grieve" and 
"Gay," and, in the second line, variations on the sound of a 
are matters of conscious versification. 

"On the Death of Dr. Swift" seems in tone midway between 
the polish of "The Author on Himself" and the indignation of 
"Holyhead," midway, that is, between "He mov'd, and bow'd, 
and talk't with too much grace" and "I'm where my enemyes 
would wish." Force of passion, acute sensitiveness, bitter- 
ness, and laughter mingle to achieve the peculiar Swiftian 
irony that drew envy even from Voltaire. The sane, preserva- 
tive force of that irony shows itself best when one looks at 
another poet's anticipation of death: Thomas Flatman, who 
wrote on many of Swift's themes, imagined his own death with- 
out irony, humor, or even any dignity. Like Swift after him, 
Flatman imagined his friends' conversation on his last day; 
and thinking about it made him set up a terrified and dis- 
tressing wail: 

Oh, the sad day, 
When friends shall shake their heads and say 

Of miserable me, 
Hark how he groans, look how he pants for breath, 
See how he struggles with the pangs of Death! 

Swift neither screams nor groans. Much of the power of his 
poem comes from its level tone, everyday language, and pro- 
saic detail in a wholly imaginary situation. When a writer has 
once created imaginary circumstances, there need be no limits 
to his imagination; but for Swift the horrible nightmare of A 
Modest Proposal is expressed with efficient, business-like 
concern; his Gulliver moves through fantastic settings with 
a perfectly convincing air of common sense; in "Baucis and 
Philemon" the miracles are matter-of-fact and described pre- 
cisely; and the deities' heavenly legal proceedings in "Cad- 
enus and Vanessa" might have been taken from London court 


records. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift" irony shows 
itself in the consummately maintained atmosphere of reality. 

On the first of December, 1731, Swift wrote to Gay that he 
had been "several months writing near five hundred lines on 
a pleasant subject, only to tell what my friends and enemies 
will say on me after I am dead. I shall finish it soon, for I 
add two lines every week, and blot out four and alter eight.'* 
The pleasant subject appeared in print first in oddly garbled 
form as "The Life and Genuine Character of Doctor Swift," 
1733; then as "Verses on the Death of Doctor Swift Written 
by Himself," 1739, with many alterations and deletions by 
Pope and Dr. King; and finally in the genuine version under 
Swift's direction as "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P. 
D. Occasioned by Reading a Maxim by Rochefoulcault. Dans 
l'adversite de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons quelque 
chose, qui ne nous deplaist pas," 1739. 

To begin, the poem announces its text in La Rochefou- 
cauld's cynical philosophy of self-love and submits arguments 
for proof: 

As Rochefoucault his maxims drew 
From nature, I believe 'em true: 
They argue no corrupted mind 
In him; the fault is in mankind. 

This maxim more than all the rest 
Is thought too base for human breast; 
"In all distresses of our friends 
"We first consult our private ends, 
"While nature kindly bent to ease us, 
"Points out some circumstance to please us. 


This defense of La Rochefoucauld was Swift's way of de- 
fending his own point of view. Both the Duke and Dean be- 
lieved that Man had degenerated from a higher state toward 
which he should climb upwards and spend his life in climb- 
ing, though like Hobbes, Montaigne, and Boileau they knew 
that the excellences of that higher state could never be re- 
gained. Without illusions, they beheld a disenchanted world 


and refused to apply beautiful, false names to its severe 
realities. This same world, however, was not without a cer- 
tain humor which allowed a duke or a dean to remark cleverly 
upon its bitterest truths. In his "Thoughts on Various Sub- 
jects" Swift could occasionally be as cynical as La Roche- 
foucauld, though his observations are hardly so exquisitely 
finished. "It is allow'd, that the cause of most actions, good 
or bad, may be resolved into the love of our selves . . . ," he 
wrote in the manner of the Maximes. When he learned that 
Pope intended to refute the principles of La Rochefoucauld, 
he protested that those principles were his own: 

I tell you after all, that I do not hate mankind: it is 
vous autres who hate them, because you would have 
them reasonable animals, and are angry for being 
disappointed. I have always rejected that definition, 
and made another of my own. I am no more angry with 
(Walpole) than I was with the kite that last week 
flew away with one of my chickens; and yet I was 
pleased when one of ray servants shot him two days 
after. This I say, because you are so hardy as to 
tell me of your intentions to write maxims in opposi- 
tion to Rochefoucauld, who is my favourite, because 
I found my whole character in him. However I will 
read him again, because I may have since undergone 
some alterations. 

If he did reread the Maximes, he did not change his opinion; 
for outside the allegory of Gulliver's Travels the most elo- 
quent statement of his real feelings about mankind appears, 
much as La Rochefoucauld might have put it in verse, in the 
prophetic description of the effect of his funeral upon the 

Swift says that, like everyone else, he envies his acquaint- 
ances (1-70); the story follows in brilliant scenes imagining 
friends who remark on his decay and then "hug themselves" 
because things are "not yet so bad*' with them (71-146); then 
the day of his death and shortly after (147-242); conversation 
at the bookseller's when a year has passed (243-298); and a 


long coffeehouse exposition of Swift's character by "One 
quite indiff'rent in the cause" (299-484). Though he is osten- 
sibly talking about himself, Swift has a good deal to say 
about friendship, envy, and human relationships in general: 
he observes how we hate to be outdone, how we tacitly con- 
gratulate ourselves on escaping the misfortunes of our friends, 
and how we would wish the odds always on our side. There 
is deadly accuracy in these dry, humorous verses. 

William Hazlitt did not err when he spoke of Swift's "ex- 
quisite tone of irony" and his "touching, unpretending pathos, 
mixed up with the most whimsical and eccentric strokes of 
pleasantry and satire." It is mostly for these verses alone 
that a crumb of admiration is sometimes thrown to Swift as 
a poet. Biographers and critics, although they almost never 
pause to analyze the poem, usually offer a polite serving 
from it and remark on its "splendid lines," "remarkable 
passages," and "glow and force of feeling." In Swift's own 
time the poem on his death had great circulation and acclaim. 
"In short," Dr. King wrote less than two months after its 
publication, "all people read it, all agree to commend it, and 
I have been well assured, the greatest enemies the Dean has 
in this country(England), allow it to be a just and beautiful 

"Before the passing-bell begun, 
"The news thro' half the town has run. 
"0, may we all for death prepare! 
"What has he left? and who's his heir? 
"I know no more than what the news is, 
" 'Tis all bequeath'd to publick uses. 
"To publick use! a perfect whim! 
"What had the publick done for him! 

Here shift the scene, to represent 
How those I love, ray death lament. 
Poor Pope will grieve a month; and Gay 
A week; and Arbuthnott a day. 

St. John himself will scarce forbear, 
To bite his pen, and drop a tear. 


The rest will give a shrug and cry, 
I'm sorry; but we all must dye. 
Indifference, clad in Wisdom's guise, 
All fortitude of mind supplies: 
For how can stony bowels melt 
In those who never pity felt; 
When we are lash'd, they kiss the rod; 
Resigning to the will of God. 

The fools, my juniors by a year, 
Are tortur'd with suspense and fear. 
Who wisely thought my age a screen, 
When death approach'd, to stand between: 
The screen remov'd, their hearts are trembling, 
They mourn for me without dissembling. 
(151-158, 205-224) 

Though there is nothing oblique in these typical lines, they 
are by no means flat: personification appears in "Indiffer- 
ence" and "Wisdom"; there are figures of speech like "stony 
bowels," "kiss the rod," and "my age a screen"; and the 
rhetorical question (215-216) is effective. On examination, 
however, none of these devices seem very original or over- 
whelmingly witty. Like the time-tried phrase "fortitude of 
mind," which Swift uses here, they help to give the illusion 
of easy, familiar mood to the cynical observations he makes. 
In their mocking, humorous context they suit exactly. More 
inventive, however, are the wonderful lines that follow, pro- 
bably the most deservedly famous in the poem: 

My female friends, whose tender hearts 
Have better learn'd to act their parts, 
Receive the news in doleful dumps, 
"The Dean is dead, (and what is trumps?) 
"The Lord have mercy on his soul. 
"(Ladies, I'll venture for the vole.) 
"Six deans, they say, must bear the pall. 
"(I wish I knew what king to call.) 
"Madam, your husband will attend 
"The funeral of so good a friend. 
"No madam, 'tis a shocking sight, 


"And he's engag'd to-morrow night! 
"My Lady Club wou'd take it ill, 
"If he shou'd fail her at quadrill. 
"He lov'd the Dean. (I lead a heart.) 
"But dearest friends, they say, must part. 
"His time was come, he ran his race; 
"We hope he's in a better place. 

In some of Hardy's "Satires of Circumstance," though sel- 
dom so ingenious, close-knit, and well sustained, there is a 
kindred disclosure of callousness through light, animated con- 
versation. Here the counterpoint of the ladies' card game, the 
real business at hand, runs on serenely through their chatter 
about their old friend's death; and rather than cluttering or 
confusing the episode, their parenthetical remarks bring 
variety in tone and pace. The contrasts and juxtapositions 
carry irony on several planes. "The Dean is dead, (and what 
is trumps?)," for example, combines disparate levels of con- 
cern and has an exact balance of phrases to oppose "Dean" 
with "what" and "dead" with "trumps." This announcement 
of death is ironically accompanied by a term from card play- 
ing that is also, in the phrase "the last trump," the poetic 
word for "trumpet." An identical pattern is followed in "He 
lov'd the Dean. (I lead a heart.)," where there is opposition 
of "lov'd" and "lead," "Dean" and "heart." There is poetic 
irony again in the suggestion of analogy between pretended 
love and a heart that is only a suit in a game of cards. In both 
these lines, and through half the episode, there is closeness 
of texture from echoed sounds. 

Most important, by acting in character to speak for his 
"female friends" on the imagined occasion of his death, 
Swift hits off a scene to show the casual cruelty and farce of 
life through humor that is not often surpassed. He wrote of 
himself in the poem as "chearful to his dying day," but his 
humor was neither that of a gaffer's snigger from a rocking- 
chair nor a vestry-room giggle behind the starched sleeve of 
a white lawn surplice: even when he laughed loudest or was 


most ironic, be said he usually had a certain view in mind: 

"Perhaps I may allow, the Dean 
"Had too much satyr in his vein; 
"And seem'd determin'd not to starve it, 
"Because no age could more deserve it. 
"Yet, malice never was his aim; 
"He lash'd the vice but spar'd the name. 
"No individual could resent, 
"Where thousands equally were meant. 
"His satyr points at no defect, 
"But what all mortals may correct; 
"For he abhorr'd that senseless tribe, 
"Who call it humour when they jibe: 
"He spar'd a hump or crooked nose, 
"Whose owners set not up for beaux. 
"True genuine dulness mov'd his pity, 
"Unless it offer'd to be witty. 



It was to punish him for his wit that caricatures of Jona- 
than Swift in his own day showed, beneath his churchly gown, 
a cloven devil's foot. Punishment of the same kind, he thought, 
withheld preferments from him, brought him the name of dan- 
gerous free-thinker, and banished him to his unwanted deanery 
in Dublin. Though he had hoped for a bishopric and was prom- 
ised medals by the Queen, without them he still had wit 
brighter than a drawerful of medals. Speaking in the exasper- 
ated voice of experience that has fed on obstacles, the voice 
of wit that has suffered for the crime of being witty, Swift 
fixes the reader's eye to address him point-blank: 

Since there are persons who complain 
There's too much satire in my vein . . . 
("A Dialogue between an Eminent 
Lawyer and Dr. Swift," 1-2) 


Rightly you shew, that wit alone 
Advances few, enriches none . . . 

("A Panegyric on the Reverend 
Dean Swift," 72-73) 

So academick dull ale-drinkers 
Pronounce all men of wit, free-thinkers. 
("To Dr. Delany on the Libels," 

"Had he but spared his tongue and pen, 
"He might have rose like other men . . . 

("Verses on the Death of Dr. 
Swift," 356-357) 

These lines, among others in the poetry, form a kind of essay 
on the price to be paid for wit. In his correspondence, too, the 
subject is a recurring one. When, out of his years and sick- 
ness and rage, he looked back at his career, he knew that he 
had written too much satirical poetry for his own good and that 
it had angered great people who might have done him favors. 
Nevertheless, when he sent advice to an overserious beginner 
in poetry, Swift pressed him to try for a vein of satire and a 
state of mind racier than he could find in Milton, who had 
been his model. Swift was, it is clear, recommending as a 
model his own poetry of inventive, surprising, and lashing wit: 

As I am conjectured to have generally dealt in rail- 
lery and satire, both in prose and verse, if that con- 
jecture be right, although such an opinion has been 
an absolute bar to my rising in the world, yet that 
very world must suppose that I followed what I 
thought to be my talent, and charitable people will 
suppose I had a design to laugh the follies of man- 
kind out of countenance, and as often to lash the 
vices out of practice. And then it will be natural to 
conclude, that I have some partiality for such kind 
of writing, and favour it in others. 

Though he had lost a mitre through dangerous wit, he still 


urged its use to express contempt for whatever is ludicrous 
and absurd. This was, he knew, a daring thing to recommend; 
for men of wit are always looked upon with some suspicion. 
The early eighteenth century was markedly a time of suspicion, 
argument, and sense, in which the sensible men were method- 
ical and utilitarian; believed in a reasonable age of progress; 
and frowned steadily upon the men of wit. To cultivate scorn 
and wantonly oppose progress with the counter-force of satire 
seemed reprehensible. Witty play on words or ideas, or play 
of almost any kind seemed, as it had to Bunyan, a thing to 
check. Steele, who desired to be spokesman for the age, en- 
couraged the scorning of scorn, saying that hearts are more 
valuable than wits. In the Epilogue to The Lying Lover he 
called laughter "a distorted passion" and recommended the 
"gen'rous pity of a painted woe" as an emotion far more 
heartfelt and sensible. The "bloody battle" between Wit and 
Sense was chronicled in a long poem by Defoe early in his 
career. He described the sallies by Blackmore and Collier 
against the Wits, recounted Dennis's raids in reprisal, and 
came to the conclusion that neither side could live alone: 

The Men of Sense against the Men of Wit, 
Eternal fighting must determine it. 

Wit is a king without a parliament, 

And Sense a democratic government: 

Wit, like the French, wher'e'er it reigns destroys, 

And Sense advanc'd is apt to tyrranize: 

Wit without Sense is like the laughing-evil 

And Sense unmix'd with fancy is the d— 1. 

(Defoe, "The Pacificator," 57-58, 365-370) 

In Swift's own work, sense and wit were united. But the 
men of sense still frowned. "... I have heard often affirmed 
by innocent people, that too much wit is dangerous to salva- 
tion," Pope once wrote in a joking mood to Swift. Years later 
and not jokingly, Thomas Gray wrote of himself: "No very 
great wit, he believed in a God..." Many years later still, 
using a different aspect of the word, Matthew Arnold did not 
even smile when he condemned poetry of the wits because, he 


said, "...genuine poetry is conceived in the soul.*' 

If wit is dangerous, a barrier to success, a sin, a mark of 
godiessness, and lodged only in poetry that is a fraud, it 
would seem a thing to be avoided by poets who have any care 
for general acclaim. But in Swift's day, at least, it was pur- 
sued like gold and was less often captured, so that he cyn- 
ically observed: 

All human race wou'd fain be wits, 
And millions miss, for one that hits. 
("On Poetry: A Rapsody," 1-2) 

Those who did not miss were the men we call the great ones 
of Swift's time, even though— as Pope's "innocent people ff 
hoped was true— they may have forfeited heavenly salvation. 

Wittily as their art allowed, pretenders to the title of poetic 
wit have sought to fix its changeable, shifty, inconstant mean- 
ing. For the most part they have had to concede that although 
wit is fine equipment for a poet, its definition does not come 
easily. Critics of literature, following the poets, have more 
confidently said what it might be. And categories, analyses, 
and explanations are set down by scholars following a dis- 
tance after the critics. 

In Shakespeare's time the usual meaning of wit was a spa- 
cious, generalized one of "wisdom," "sense," or "mind." 
But toward the middle of the seventeenth century when John 
Donne's songs and sonnets were published, it was a name 
for the poetic process itself and was particularly akin to what 
was known and courted as "fancy." Donne's was a wit of 
audacious surprise that saw poetic resemblances and anal- 
ogies between the rarity of a comet and a woman's innocence, 
between pearls and the sweat-drops on his mistress' brow, 
and between a shattered mirror and his own heart. It was often 
brilliant conceit that could dazzle or blind or, often too, 
merely distract. In his Leviathan, 1651, Thomas Hobbes made 
a famous distinction between this "fancy" of resemblances 
and the "judgment" that shows differences in objects seem- 
ingly alike: ornaments and flowers, Hobbes said, grow from 


"fancy"; but the structure of the tree of verse itself is a 
thing of "judgment." For great poetry he would have them 

By the time of Abraham Cowley, whom Swift in his youth 
tried to imitate, wit could be thought of as structural, steady, 
and sober, nourished by the conscious faculties. Cowley's 
ode "Of Wit," 1656, describes a thing bearing a thousand 
different shapes but having orderliness of ideas and lending 
harmony and proportion to poetry. This dignifying point of 
view would have pleased Sir William Temple. By 1690, during 
Swift's decade of intermittent employment in his home, Sir 
William was out of patience with the pestilence of conceit, 
writing that it was like spangles hiding a gown, as frequent 
as rhyme in the "scribbles" of the day. Five years later, 
clever William Congreve, Swift's former schoolmate in Ireland, 
paused in his observations on humor in comedy to remark, less 
cleverly than usual, that though wit seemed to be the opposite 
of folly, like humor it could not be certainly defined. These 
were the years in which young Jonathan Swift, in his middle 
twenties, was publishing his first poem, in imitation of Cow- 
ley; addressing verses to Temple and Congreve; and writing 
about "the ambition of ray wit," "the lost language, wit," 
and saying "We join like flyes, and wasps, in buzzing about 
wit," self-consciously hunting out "writ," "pit," "it," and 
"sit" for his rhyme. 

Among the poets it remained for John Dryden, who is sup- 
posed to have scared the hankering for sublimity out of Cousin 
Swift, to write as an authority on the subject. Wishing to ex- 
change surface-glitter and dancing conceits, however attract- 
ive they may be, for a manly, "boisterous English wit," 
Dryden praised that lively faculty of imagination "which like 
a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges through the field of 
memory..." Yet when it came time for Swift's friend Joseph 
Addison to try his hand, Dryden's easy dictum was no longer 
acceptable. Observing like all the others how wit is admired 
but little understood, Addison found most satisfactory of all, 
the philosophical account by John Locke in which wit was 
shown to be a resemblance and congruity of ideas. Addison 
thought it necessary to remark, as he was at last separating 


true wit from the false and mixed, that resemblances of ideas 
are, after all, not wit unless for the reader they bring delight 
and, especially, surprise: "Thus when a poet tells us the 
bosom of his mistress is as white as snow, there is no wit in 
the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as 
cold too, it then grows into wit." 

A dearer friend of Swift's among the poets might have 
called his "Essay on Criticism" an "Essay on Wit" in- 
stead; for to Pope criticism, wit, and poetry were locked 
inextricably. Like Cowley he would have poetic wit of har- 
mony, order, and proportion; like Temple he expressed im- 
patience with the ornament and trimming of pasted-on con- 
ceits; like Dryden he praised the powerful effect of "the 
joint force and fell result of all"; and like Addison he appre- 
ciated the art of manipulated surprise: 

True wit is nature to advantage dress'd, 
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd; 
Something, whose truth convinc'd at sight we find, 
That gives us back the image of our mind. 

(Pope, "Essay on Criticism," 297-300) 

Pope's description did not satisfy Dr. Johnson. A nobler 
sort of wit, he felt, would express ideas, not of "What oft 
was thought," but of "that which he that never found it won- 
ders how he missed . . ." Dr. Johnson saw neither sort in the 
work of Donne, Jonson, Cleveland, Cowley, and the other 
poets he termed "metaphysical." To him, their wit seemed 
merely an extravagance of language best exemplified by the 
outlandish, wonderful puns extending through the most serious 
poems of John Donne. Long before this wit of language had 
received Johnson's depreciatory name of "metaphysical," it 
had become somewhat out-moded. Even before the close of 
the seventeenth century, especially in comedies for the stage, 
it was a source for amusement. In the first scene of Shad- 
well's Bury-Fair, 1689, Mr. Wildish remarks of Mr. Oldwit 
that he is "a paltry old-fashioned wit, and punner of the last 
age; that pretends to have been one of Ben Johnson's sons, 
and to have seen plays at the Blackfryers." 

The poetry of Swift is not so irreconcilably different from 


the poetry of Donne and the sons of Ben as many literary 
historians have believed: both are poetry of wit. But wit for 
Swift was less a matter of style than a point of view. Donne's 
elegy called "Going to Bed" and Swift's "A Beautiful Young 
Nymph Going to Bed" are both poems that have been called 
indelicate and disgusting; they both describe the disrobing 
of a woman; and both are successful poems of wit. There 
could hardly be, however, two poems more patently unlike in 
their intention and effect. The audaciously physical meta- 
phors, similes, and puns in the love-poem "Going to Bed" 
are centered in Donne's exultant cry of "Full nakedness!" 
Nakedness in "A Young Nymph Going to Bed" is made in- 
tentionally unattractive by enumeration of "artificial hair," 
"flabby dugs," and "running sores." There is a real sim- 
ilarity between Donne and Swift in certain passages from 
poems on their own deaths. This is a subject with which both 
poets were preoccupied: the first line of Donne's fourth "Sa- 
tyre"— "Well! I may now receive, and die ..." — could also 
serve for "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." But even when 
they are most alike, the two poets do not share quite the same 
kind of wit. In many of Swift's poems wit is more than a mat- 
ter of style. Its purpose is often one of scorn; and Swift's 
scorn, in his poetry and prose as well, can be magnificent. 
For Donne wit was generally an artistic tool. For Swift it 
was more often employed as a weapon. 

Swift himself accepted the title of "wit." In his earliest 
correspondence he wrote of "the wits" as coxcombs and 
macaronies; but by the time he had become a redoubtable 
figure in London, in the days of his political power, he had 
assumed the name for himself and was already jealous of 
others who wished to share it. "I hate to have any new witts 
rise," he wrote in the Journal to Stella; "but when they do 
rise I would encourage them, but they tread on our heels, & 
thrust us off the stage." When he was a veteran on that stage, 
he was still out of patience with aspirants to the name of wit, 
especially if their talent seemed to lie only in presumption. 
A dandyish young man once made the mistake of saying to 
him, with a gesture: 

"You must know, Mr. Dean, that I set up for a wit." 


"Do you so," said Swift; "then take my advice, and 
sit down again." 

Though he defined "wit," like Pope and the others he did 
not always remember his definition, writing at one time of 
wit and sense as a compatible pair, and elsewhere allying it 
with elegance, judgment, joke, or virtue. Whatever company 
it might keep, he praised it, saying in The Author's Apology 
for A Tale of a Tub y that "wit is the noblest and most useful 
gift of human nature..." When he qualified this, in a famous 
sentence from The Battle of the Books, it was to disown as 
true wit all that was giddy and smart without judgment to give 
it body: "Wit, without knowledge, being a sort of cream, which 
gathers in a night to the top, and, by a skilful hand, may be 
soon whipped into froth; but, once scummed away, what ap- 
pears underneath will be fit for nothing but to be thrown to 
the hogs." 

He went further to differentiate from humor and raillery the 
inventive wit of the intellect that could not be merely scummed 
away, though he was particular to say that he was erecting no 
boundaries of definition: 

(Wit), as boundless as the wind; 
Is well conceiv'd tho not defin'd; 
For, sure, by wit is onely meant 
Applying what we first invent . . . 
For wit and humor differ quite, 
That gives surprise, and this delight. . . 
("To Mr. Delany," 15-18, 23-24) 

Swift was thinking here of the invention and surprise in con- 
versational wit, but his poetry is itself so remarkably con- 
versational, often in the form of monologue and dialogue, that 
what he says is appropriate to "Baucis and Philemon," "The 
Day of Judgement," and all his other sly, satirical, and un- 
expected wit-in-rhyme. By prescribing invention and surprise 
for true wit, he was not drawing upon the Cowleyan idea of 
harmony and proportion of intellect and the senses so much 
as upon a concept like Addison's. If he had invented the 
simile of snow to describe a mistress* bosom, he would have 


done so for the sake of mischievous parody; but he would 
have gone on, like Addison, to make wit of the simile. Wit, 
he told Dr. Delany, "is a quick-sighted faculty, which finds 
out allusions and resemblances of things, seemingly most 
distant and unlike: and when it hath found them out, its 
greatest delight is to shew them: and therefore can seldom 
resist the pride, and pleasure of doing so; be the subject 
what it will, or the occasions never so improper." 

Because Swift was the man he was, his subject for wit and 
its occasion were seldom so uninventive and without surprise 
as the description of a mistress' bosom in clever society 
love-verse. When he wrote with most endearment of Stella, it 
was to liken her, and rather movingly, to a weather-beaten 
sign, a badger, or a cow. Most often his wit in poetry and 
prose was in the form of satirical comment, perhaps start- 
lingly point-blank or sometimes wickedly roundabout, on what- 
ever offended his good sense. Even when he wrote in a burst 
of spite on "occasions never so improper," or intentionally 
to vex the world, he wrote with keen and imaginative wit that 
grew out of invention of the mind and was colored, sometimes 
almost alarmingly, with brilliant surprises. 



In all Jonathan Swift's poems, though it is especially ap- 
parent in the briefer ones, wit often lies in juxtapositions no 
less surprising than T.S.Eliot's use of "garlic," "sapphires," 
and "mud" in a single line. Many of these poems by Swift, 
which are almost perfect of their kind and should be better 
known, depend upon a final line or two for their chief effect 
through sudden contrast of the literary and colloquial, ether- 
ial and earthy. Such a poem is "The Power of Time," 1727 # 
Its subject is as familiar in the world of poetry as the charm 
of Beauty and the triumph of Death: even stone and brass, 
poems on the subject remind us, do not last for ever. In 
Shakespeare's sonnet it sounds like this: "Since brass, nor 


stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, / But Bad mortality o'er- 
s ways their power..."; and Swift's friend Thomas Parnell 
echoes with: "Relentless Time! destroying power. / Whom 
stone and brass decay..." Now when the reader of Jonathan 
Swift's poetry sees in measured lines, solemnly musical, the 
old accepted phrases for a poem on the power of Time, he 
should be wary. He must no more settle back to be lulled by 
familiar apothegm than settle back to learn geography from 
what disarmingly purports to be Travels into Several Remote 
Nations of the World y in Four Parts. 

The Power of Time 

If neither brass nor marble can withstand 
The mortal force of Time's destructive hand; 
If mountains sink to vales, if cities die 
And lessening rivers mourn their fountains dry; 
When my old cassock, says a Welch divine, 
Is out at elbows, why should I repine? 

The query of the final lines, rushing after pretentious 
stresses that have preceded, brings the unexpected in a hurry. 
From the abstract, grand, and "poetic" of his parody Swift 
has turned in an instant to the common and specific: Time's 
mortal force, death of cities, and the end of rivers are them- 
selves paradoxically destroyed by the image, brought close 
before the reader's eyes, of a cassock threadbare from use. 
And it is after the spread-out literary elegance of marble, 
vales, and fountains, when we might expect to read at least 
of "priestly robes," that we are surprised back into an in- 
elegant world with the homely phrase "out at elbows." 

Though this brief poem opens with mellifluous couplets that 
mimic pretentious poetry almost too exactly, the query of the 
Welshman comes as a relief as well as a surprise. It is the 
expected unexpected. The effect is certainly no accident, for 
we know that Swift revised the lines to achieve his end. As 
he tentatively wrote them they were: 

When the old cassock of el Welch divine 
Is out at elbows why should he repine? 


In that form the surprise is less, and the effect is not so im- 
mediate: it is second-hand, with the speaker still in the 
middle-distance rather than talking in the first-person-singular 
as he is in the finished poem—talking at the reader's side. 

The twist from remote to immediate, impersonal to personal, 
lofty to colloquial, sententious to witty, unreal to real, is 
adeptly manipulated in the six lines of this light verse. But 
it is not necessarily inconsequential because it is light. In 
his sonnet "Since Brass nor Stone," Shakespeare says that 
as Time destroys all things, Beauty cannot survive except, 
perhaps, in the expression of love immortalized in his sonnet 
itself. What Swift is saying seems at least as wise and mem- 
orable: that since all things decay, even impersonal things 
we call indestructible, it is useless to complain of losses 
that are merely personal. 

Variations on the device of witty turnabout are familiar in 
brief fiction like that of Maupassant and in ironic verses like 
Thomas Hardy's "Satires of Circumstance" where a conclud- 
ing phrase may abruptly reveal a preacher's vanity, a bride's 
domination by an old love, or a lifetime of misunderstanding. 
For Swift the device takes several forms: there are brief 
poems which turn suddenly in their conclusion from lofty to 
colloquial style; certain epigrammatic verses intended to sur- 
prise; and a few important poems that seem successful par- 
odies largely because of their concluding lines. 

Of the first sort is the poem "On His Deafness," 1734, 
which follows the same pattern as "The Power of Time" to 
cause surprise. In Swift's correspondence his complaints of 
vertigo, deafness, and head-noises show that he was often in 
physical discomfort and that it was a matter that tormented 
him. Yet in eight lines he uses wit to describe his situation. 
"Deaf, giddy, helpless, left alone" might in other hands have 
introduced observations like those that follow Milton's "When 
I consider how my light is spent," or it might merely have 
aroused pity by a catalogue of infirmities. But this is poetry 
of wit that suddenly thrusts a fool's cap on the hero's head 
or snatches away the beau's fine wig to show him bald. 


On His Deafness 

Deaf, giddy, helpless, left alone, 
To all my friends a burthen grown, 
No more I hear my church's bell, 
Than if it rang out for my knell: 
At thunder now no more I start, 
Than at the rumbling of a cart: 
Nay, what's incredible, alack! 
I hardly hear a woman's clack. 

Without the final line even the rather well-turned remark on 
his funeral bell does not make the poem a witty one. It is 
the single colloquial word "clack," like the phrase "out at 
elbows" in "The Power of Time," that brings full surprise 
into the lines. If rhyme allowed substitution of the word "talk" 
for "clack," the wit would vanish and interest would lie 
chiefly in Swift's willingness to find amusement in verses on 
his deafness, giddiness, and old age. 

Though a third poem and one better known, "The Place of 
the Damn'd," 1731, depends upon Swift's contrast of style 
and mood, there is amusement of a different sort in its final 
two lines; for they conclude a poem of such cumulative viol- 
ence that even the relief of a sudden, quietly conversational 
ending does not dispel it. The furious insistent drumming of 
the e/'s in "damn'd," repeated eighteen times in as many 
lines, can still be heard when the poem is finished. 

The Place of the Damn'd 

All folks who pretend to religion and grace, 
Allow there's a Hell, but dispute of the place; 
But if Hell may by logical rules be defin'd, 
The Place of the Damn'd,— I'll tell you my mind. 

Wherever the damn'd do chiefly abound, 
Most certainly there is the Hell to be found, 
Damn'd poets, damn'd critics, damn'd block-heads, damn'd 

Damn'd senators brib'd, damn'd prostitute slaves; 
Damn'd lawyers and judges, damn'd lords and damn'd 



Damn'd spies and informers, daranM friends and damn'd 

Damn'd villains, corrupted in every station, 
Damn'd time-serving priests all over the nation; 
And into the bargain, I'll readily give you, 
Damn'd ignorant prelates, and councellors privy. 
Then let us no longer by parsons be flamm'd, 
For we know by these marks, the place of the damn'd; 
And Hell to be sure is at Paris or Rome, 
How happy for us, that it is not at home. 

The sardonic impression left by the poem comes from invec- 
tive suddenly changed to mock-fatuous mimicry of what might 
be expressed by a self-righteous householder. "How happy 
for us" can hardly be read aloud without an imitation of a 
smirk. But the fierce accusal in "Damn'd ignorant prelates" 
and "Damn'd time-serving priests," for instance, makes light 
verse seem a misnomer: it disturbs and vexes, precisely as 
Swift often said he intended, and as the modern "light verse" 
of E.E. Cummings can disturb when he says what he thinks 
about politicians, anthologists, and salesmen. 

It too is devilishly witty, but there is nothing amusing 
whatsoever in "The Day of Judgement," the most powerful 
of Swift's briefer poems. In it the device of surprise by con- 
trast is almost the same as that in "The Place of the Damn'd"; 
but when higher language drops to the colloquial here, the 
poem's anger is intensified. Surely it is anger as unrelieved, 
even by wit, as that in any other twenty-two rhymed lines in 
English; and yet the poem is one of wit. 

The choice of subject does not make it so: Thackeray un- 
intentionally demonstrates this when he holds up "The Day 
of Judgement" alongside prose extracts from Addison and 
Steele, intending to place Sir Richard to advantage. He 
imagines a mad, terrible Swift "stamping on a grave and carry- 
ing his scorn for mankind actually beyond it" and imagines 
Swift saying: "Miserable, purblind wretches, how dare you 
pretend to comprehend the Inscrutable...?" Beside him, 
Thackeray tells us, is Addison, "smiling over the tombstones, 
and catching, as is his wont, quite a divine effulgence as he 


looks heavenward..." But Sir Richard Steele "leads you up 
to his father's coffin, and shows you his beautiful mother 
weeping, and himself an unconscious little boy wondering at 
her side. His own natural tears flow, as he takes your hand 
and confidingly asks your sympathy. 'See how good and inno- 
cent and beautiful women are,' he says, 'how tender little 
children! Let us love these and one another, brother...'" 
To avoid the embarrassment of Steele's own natural tears the 
modern reader hastens back with new respect for the "terrible 
lines of Swift," ready to help him stamp on graves. 

When Thomas Flatman and Isaac Watts wrote on the same 
theme in verse, they did not have wit in mind. "A Dooms-Day 
Thought: Anno 1659" leads through Flatraan's graveyard 
imaginings and his attempts to intimidate ("who can dwell / 
With everlasting burnings!") to his climactic admonition: on 
Judgement Day it will be too late to mend our ways. In Watts's 
"Day of Judgment: An Ode Attempted in English Sapphick," 
the verse-form holds more interest than what is being said. 
Here too the reader is meant to be intimidated by "Hark the 
shrill outcries of the guilty wretches!" and "Thoughts like 
old vultures prey upon their heartstrings" until the poet bids 
his fancy stop, cries "Come arise to Jesus," and concludes 
with enthusiastic smugness in the language of prayer-meetings 
and revivals. 

"The Day of Judgement" bearing Swift's name is unlike 
the work of Flatman, Watts, or anyone else than Swift. He 
had, however, been dead for almost thirty years before it was 
first printed— under circumstances that remain one of the most 
intriguing pieces of unfinished business in literary history. 
On August 27, 1752, Lord Chesterfield wrote to Voltaire that 
he was sending him a poem on "Jupiter, au jour du jugement," 
copied from Swift's unpublished manuscript in Chesterfield's 
possession. "Son Jupiter," he added to flatter Voltaire, 
"... les traite a peu pres corarae vous les traitez, et comme 
ils le raeritent." And on November 21, 1756, Chesterfield 
quoted from Swift's poem in a letter to the Bishop of Water- 
ford: "The mad business of the world (as Swift says) is over 
with me." But when the letter to Voltaire was first published 
in Chesterfield's Letters, April 7, 1774, no poem accompanied 


it. The poem appeared almost simultaneously, however, in the 
St. James's Chronicle for April 9-12, 1774, with a prefatory 
note referring to Chesterfield's Letters, and mysteriously 
signed "Mercutio." Who "Mercutio" was, why he did not re- 
veal himself, how he came into possession of the poem, and 
whether he may not have written it himself in imitation of 
Swift, are questions scholars who track down such matters 
have been unable to answer. Swift is, nevertheless, almost 
as certainly the author of "The Day of Judgement" as Shakes- 
peare is of King Lear. The pattern for the poem is typical of 
his ingenious verses that suddenly, through legerdemain of 
style, assume a new identity on the page while the reader 

The Day of Judgement 

With a whirl of thought oppress'd, 

I sink from reverie to rest. 

An horrid vision seiz'd my head, 

I saw the graves give up their dead. 

Jove, arm'd with terrors, burst the skies, 

And thunder roars, and light'ning flies! 

Amaz'd, confus'd, its fate unknown, 

The world stands trembling at his throne. 

While each pale sinner hangs his head, 

Jove, nodding, shook the heav'ns, and said, 

"Offending race of human kind, 

By nature, reason, learning, blind; 

You who thro* frailty step'd aside, 

And you who never fell— thro* pride; 

You who in different sects have shamm'd, 

And come to see each other damn'd; 

(So some folks told you, but they knew 

No more of Jove's designs than you) 

The world's mad business now is o'er, 

And I resent these pranks no more. 

I to such blockheads set my wit! 

I damn such fools!— Go, go, you're bit." 

Though some critics have said that tormented hours of 
skepticism, leading to madness, are reflected in these lines, 


it is more useful to observe that the lines reflect a very con- 
scious ability to create a startling poetic effect through ver- 
sification and language. Swift does not ride an octosyllabic 
rocking-horse but alters and shifts the verbal pattern to fit 
his mood and meaning. If the first line, for instance, were in 
regular iambic meter, with four evenly-spaced stresses, as in 
"A WHIRL of THOUGHT my MIND opPRESS'D," there would 
be no conviction whatever in the word "whirl." Swift's lead- 
ing in with a hurried anapest makes the difference. In the 
fifth and tenth lines, where Jove, "arm'd" and "nodding," 
enters the poem, there are heavy stresses made longer by 
pauses within the lines. Aloud, at least, the tenth line re- 
quires almost twice as long to read as the first. 

In employing wit to uncover irreligion that calls itself 
piety, "The Day of Judgement" shows a furious Jove who 
speaks in language befitting a god, even in the contemptuous 
"pranks" to describe Man's childish hypocrisies, until the 
fierce concluding couplet, where the language is that of 
colloquial speech. Whereas Jove has spoken of himself in 
the remote third-person ("Jove's designs"), he is now ter- 
rifyingly near us, using our own speech, in first-person 
phrases of "I resent," "I. . .set my wit," and "I damn." The 
Jove who had shaken the heavens has come too close for 
comfort; he has become, especially in the furious monosylla- 
bic final line, Jonathan Swift himself, periwigged, and cry- 
ing "Go, go, you're bit. 9 * 

When he was young and liked a new phrase to amuse, Swift 
wrote to a friend: "I will teach you a way to outwit Mrs. John- 
son: it is a new-fashioned way of being witty, and they call 
it a bite. You must ask a bantering question, or tell some 
damned lie in a serious manner, and then she will answer or 
speak as if you were in earnest; and then cry you, 'Madam, 
there's a bite.'" You're bit, spoken in cold disgust by a Jove 
ready in dreadful sport to condemn or abandon all mankind, 
is certainly not amusing, though it is still witty and still 
part of Comedy. For Comedy, like that of another age in which 
Thomas Hardy's Jove has himself become irresponsible and 
the Godhead no longer has a brain, is not always amusing. 




In certain shorter poems, concise, and pointed like arrows, 
the wit is epigrammatic. Observations on subjects like the 
English tongue, Irish sense, or violent wives, these epigrams 
hit their mark precisely. Swift's "Epigram on Scolding" bears 
no date of composition in Williams's edition of the poems, but 
certain phrases in it closely resemble those in a letter from 
William Pulteney, written to Swift on February 9, 1731. Pult- 
eney was reporting on Dr. Arbuthnot's "Brief Account of Mr. 
John Ginglicut's Treatise concerning the Altercation or 
Scolding of the Ancients," and he told how Arbuthnot had 
amused himself by pretending to assign classical dignity to 
the mud-pie-war of invective in contemporary English pam- 
phlets. "He shows," Pulteney wrote, "how the gods and 
goddesses used one another— dog, bitch, and whore, were 
pretty common expressions among them..." Swift's similar 
phrases are witty and mocking: 

Great folks are of a finer mold; 
Lord! how politely they can scold; 
While a coarse English tongue will itch, 
For whore and rogue; and dog and bitch. 

Better known, with the same kind of exclamatory irony, is 
the quatrain on Irish sense. Familiar in biographies and stud- 
ies of Swift, it is intended to show how, in the years when 
his mind had failed, his former intelligence gleamed brightly 
for a minute when he saw the armory in Phoenix Park and wrote 
in his pocket-book: 

Behold! a proof of Irish sense! 

Here Irish wit is seen! 
When nothing's left, that's worth defence, 

We build a magazine. 

In the early pages of Finnegans Wake, through which the in- 
dignant ghost of Swift moves restlessly, James Joyce uses 
this epigram in disguised form. In the first line, printed as 


prose, "Behold" is changed to "Behove"; and Swift's "proof" 
becomes "sound" in H.C. Earwicker's wonderful dream. 

As tersely as he wrote about the English tongue and Irish 
sense, Swift put down rhymes on marriage or, more exactly, 
on women who manhandle their men. There are three of these 
epigrams, all transcribed in Stella's hand. The briefer ones, 
beginning "When Margery chastises Ned" and "Joan cudgells 
Ned, yet Ned's a bully," depend for their wit upon eighteenth- 
century slang like "combs his head," "finds him horn," and 
"cully." The third, though perhaps earliest in composition, 
ends with the surprising, cynical wit that characterizes a good 
epigram, here repeating a phrase from the first line to add 
full circle to the surprise. It is a pattern that turns on itself: 

As Thomas was cudgell'd one day by his wife, 
He took to the street, and fled for his life: 
Tom's three dearest friends came by in the squabble, 
And sav'd him at once from the shrew and the rabble; 
Then ventur'd to give him some sober advice, 
But Tom is a person of honor so nice 
Too wise to take counsel, too proud to take warning, 
That he sent to all three a challenge next morning. 
Three duels he fought, thrice ventur'd his life; 
Went home, and was cudgell'd again by his wife. 

Th.s is reminiscent of the undeluded, rough-tongued epigrams 
of Thomas Hardy. But the author of "Verses on the Death of 
Dr. Swift" and "The Day of Judgement" was writing here, 
offhand, to entertain friends of an evening with wine or to 
show how neatly he could crystallize a witty observation in 




Still other poems by Swift are notable because of endings 
which make clear, suddenly, that one has been reading parody 


all along and that what has perhaps been taken seriously was 
really spoken through a mask. "The Power of Time," in which 
solemnly poetic lines turn into a Welsh preacher's observation 
on his poverty, is a good example. But that poem is not re- 
vealed as so obvious a parody as are two of Swift's longer, 
more masterly, and better-known poems, his "Description of 
a City Shower" and "Baucis and Philemon." 

Early in October, 1710, he wrote to Stella about his "poet- 
ical 'Description of a Shower in London' " for the Tatler, later 
added that it was finished, "all but the beginning," and then 
reported that the missing lines had been supplied. Finally, on 
the seventeenth of October, he wrote: "This day came out the 
Tatler, made up wholly of my 'Shower,' and a preface to it. 
They say it is the best thing I ever writ, and I think so too." 
He pressed Stella for her opinion of the poem; and he was de- 
lighted when Rowe and Prior "both fell commending my 
'Shower' beyond anything that has been written of the kind: 
there never was such a 'Shower' since Danae's, etc. . ." His 
verses on the morning, Swift himself insisted, were "not half 
so good." There had been no such delight and wish for ap- 
proval in his references to his essays and other works in 
prose, though many of them received approval, and deserved 
it. There had hardly been such a show of eagerness since his 
youthful letter to his cousin in which he confessed his ambi- 
tion to sing odes like Cowley's. But now he was a more cyn- 
ical Swift; youthful eagerness, which he patronized in others, 
had for himself evaporated. 
2^ Like many of his best poems "A Description of a City 
Shower" is in Swift's racy, almost anti-"poetic" style, with 
swarming realistic detail. Its last three lines give the show 
away, however, when the admirably realistic turns suddenly 
to open-faced parody: the author has been artfully fooling 
with the reader, as he does in Gulliver's Travels and A Modest 
Proposal. There are three levels to the poem. It is an evoca- 
tion of what a rainstorm in eighteenth-century London was 
like; it is a criticism of all romantic and all dishonest de- 
scription of nature; and its ending is specifically a parody of 
Dryden's favorite Alexandrines and triplet-rhymes. In the 
1735 edition of the poems the "Shower" bears a note to just 


this effect; and in a letter, Swift wrote that "I was so angry 
at these corruptions that above twenty-four years ago I ban- 
ished them all by one triplet, with the Alexandrine, upon a 
very ridiculous subject." 

The poem is in four unframed vignettes that show the pre- 
sentiment of rain, its preliminary sprinkle, the downpour, and 
the flood. As the shower grows, so does the wit. There is only 
a hint in the third line, with a suspicious use of the word 
"pensive," so familiar in serious Augustan elegies, that 
this is mock-heroic verse; for Swift's "pensive" describes a 
cat. Plumbing that stinks and corns that pain increase the 
suspicion that this is mockery of romantic nature-poetry, and 
the reader should be on to the joke by the time he begins the 
second division of the "Shower": 

Mean while the South rising with dabbled wings, 
A sable cloud a-thwart the welkin flings, 
That swill'd more liquor than it could contain, 
And like a drunkard gives it up again. 


Probably the weakest in the poem, these plug-ugly lines are 
at the same time its strongest example of Swiftian juxtaposi- 
tion meant to surprise. Deliberately hackneyed "poetical" 
phrases lead into phrases that are as deliberately un-"poet- 
ical" in subject and sound. "Swill'd" has the same relation- 
ship to "sable cloud" as the poem's concluding lines have 
to the poem itself. 

Although that conclusion is the most famous part of the 
"Shower," and the part with which Swift thought he had 
"banished" certain corruptions from English poetry, the 
middle sections of the poem are what other writers might 
envy most. With easy thrift of words they sketch line-draw- 
ings of people in the rain or keeping out of it: a maid, a poet, 
shoppers, a barrister, a sempstress, Tories and Whigs, and an 
impatient dandy. In wittily describing people Swift is at his 
best. Humanizing everywhere— even in his prose on philosophy, 
politics, religion, and literature— he invented people (or some- 
times animals) to act out and say for him what he wanted to 
say, and called them Jack, Peter, Martin, Isaac Bickerstaff, 


Martin Scriblerus, M.B. Drapier, Lord Sparkish, or the Emperor 
of Lilliput. He drew Lemael Gulliver, for instance, so well 
that readers have sometimes been diverted from what Gulliver 
is intended to tell them. Here are his Londoners in the rain: 

Now in contiguous drops the flood comes down, 
Threat'ning with deluge this devoted town. 
To shops in crouds the daggled females fly, 
Pretend to cheapen goods, but nothing buy. 
The Templer spruce, while ev'ry spout's a-broach, 
Stays till 'tis fair, yet seems to call a coach. 
The tuck'd-up sempstress walks with hasty strides, 
While streams run down her oil'd umbrella's sides. 
Here various kinds by various fortunes led, 
Commence acquaintance underneath a shed. 
Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs, 
Forget their feuds, and join to save their wigs. 
Box'd in a chair the beau impatient sits, 
While spouts run clatt'ring o'er the roof by fits . . . 


Beginning with "contiguous," which falls into the poem as 
heavily as the cloudburst it is meant to suggest, there is a 
good deal in these lines that is skilfully arranged. Especially 
tight-packed, like Hogarth's bright engraving "Noon," are the 
heroic couplets with their group-portrait of bespattered shop- 
pers and the full-length single portrait of the hurrying semp- 
stress whose exact way of walking, arrangement of dress, and 
(still more closely observed) wet umbrella require only a few 
phrases. Though the compactness comes in part from expert 
use of heroic couplets, there are other devices, and a deter- 
mination to be succinct. Alliteration in almost every line and 
even repetition of syllables and whole words gives an effect 
of interweaving: "various kinds .... various fortunes" and 
"While rain dePENds, the PENsive cat gives o'er," for in- 
stance. Swift's skill is doubly evident when one turns for 
comparison to John Gay's Trivia, or The Art of Walking the 
Streets of London, in which he tried, as pliantly as he tried 
everything, to imitate Swift's "Shower." Though it is Gay's 
best-remembered poem, and a lively handbook on eighteenth- 


century manners, Trivia is partly buried under the peraphrasis 
from which Swift was so wonderfully free. Swift's phrase 
"swelling kennels" becomes Gay's "the kennels swell"; 
"oil'd umbrella's sides" becomes "th' umbrella's oily shed"; 
and "spouts run clatt'ring" becomes "spouts on heedless 
men their torrents pour." When Gay comes to write of the 
housewives' overshoes, he cannot get past them ("But, 0! 
forget not, Muse, the patten's praise"), and his episode on 
their invention continues for seventy lines, tiresome even in 

If Swift had concluded with these pen-sketches of London- 
ers in the rain, he would not have written the poem that was 
"beyond anything that has been written of the kind," or that 
ridiculed out of existence the poetic "corruptions" Dryden 
had fostered, or that caused Hippolyte Taine to protest "toutes 
ces ordures." The eddying momentum of the last eleven lines 
of Swift's poem increases to whirl his descriptive sketches 
along with the drowned puppies and dung that offended Taine. 
The whirlpool of the final triplet is meant to offend so that 
Dryden's lines like these, conspicuously decorated with brack- 
ets, will be forever distasteful: 

'Twas fram'd, at first, our oracle t'enquire; 
But, since our sects in prophecy grow higher, 
The text inspires not them; but they the text inspire. 

What curses on thy blasted name will fall! 

When age to age their legacy shall call; 

For all must curse the woes that must descend on a 

(Dryden, "The Medal," 164-166, 260-262) 

To ridicule this, Swift gives us an unlovely triple-rhyme of 
"blood," "mud," and "flood," with a tumble of dead cats 
and turnip-tops swirling in the long final Alexandrine of which 
he disapproves: 

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, 
And bear their trophies with them as they go: 
Filth of all hues and odours, seem to tell 
What streets they sail'd from, by the sight and smell. 


They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force 

From Smithfield, or St. Pulchre's shape their course, 

And in huge confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge, 

Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge. 

Sweepings from butchers' stalls, dung, guts, and blood 

Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drench'd in mud, 

Dead cats, and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood. J 


Though the "Shower" was advertised as an imitation of 
Virgil's Georgics, it is less obviously an imitation than 
"Baucis and Philemon," 1709. Both are less accurately imi- 
tations than they are parodies. When Swift's tongue-in-cheek 
tale of Baucis and Philemon is read alongside its versions 
from less mischievous hands, the parody shows through. In 
Shakespeare's time the most popular of ancient poets was 
Ovid, most popularly translated by Arthur Golding, who is 
nowadays of interest because Shakespeare picked here and 
there among his verses to make better ones. When Golding 
comes to the end of Ovid's "Baucis and Philemon," from the 
eighth book of the Metamorphoses, he provides a suitable 
moral to be carried away as a memento of what happened 
"upon the hills of Phrygie." Golding's two honest, devoted 
peasants have shared "simple poverty" of coleworts, bacon, 
wild berries, endive, radishes, eggs, "a jolly lump of butter," 
nuts, dates, figs, apples, prunes, plums, grapes, honey, and 
wine with strangers who turn out to be Jove and Mercury; and, 
for reward, their straw hut becomes a temple, they are priest 
and priestess, and they finally die together as they had con- 
jugally wished, changing into trees, which had not been in 
the bargain. In the Phrygian park, says Golding, 

I saw the garlands hanging on the boughs, and adding new 
I said, "Let them, whom God doth love, be gods, and hon- 
our due 
Be given to such as honour him with fear and reverence 

This is rather charming. Dryden, sharp-witted satirist though 
he was, was charmed by "this good-natured story," as he 
called it, and translated it like an exercise fron Latin, con- 



And off ring fresher up with pious prayer, 

The good, said I, are God's peculiar care, 

And such as honour heaven, shall heavenly honour share, 


Swift will have none of this. He is spoofing it throughout 
his "Baucis and Philemon," where the scene is rural Kent, 
the gods are merely saints, the fare is bacon and beer, Phil- 
emon is first transformed into a threadbare parson, Baucis 
becomes "Madam" in black satin, and they are at last meta- 
morphosed into yew-trees: 

Till once, a parson of our town 
To mend his barn, cut Baucis down; 
At which, 'tis hard to be believ'd, 
How much the other tree was griev'd: 
Grew scrubby, dy'd a-top, was stunted: 
So, the next parson stubb'd and burnt it. 


"Stubb'd and burnt it" bluntly and wittily replaces Ovid's 
garlands in intertwined branches and, through Golding and 
Dryden, "reverence true" and "God's peculiar care." Com- 
pared to "garlands hanging on the boughs," there is a kind of 
insult and cruelty in "stubb'd and burnt it" —and a kind of 
honesty and wit that we like to call modern. 

Two episodes in the poem, besides the last, seem worth 
examining. The metamorphosis of the cottage into a church 
is as visually imaginative and surrealistic as some of T.S. 
Eliot's metaphors; scenes from Gulliver's third voyage; or 
Hogarth's frontispiece to Kirby's Perspective, in which a 
woman leans from a window to hold a candle to the pipe of 
a traveler on a distant hill, a bird is almost as large as its 
tree, and the church seems to be crawling into the river: 

Aloft rose ev'ry beam and rafter; 
The heavy wall climb'd slowly after. 

The chimney widen'd and grew higher, 
Became a steeple with a spire. 


The groaning chair was seen to crawl, 
Like a huge snail half up the wall; 
There stuck aloft in publick view; 
And with small change, a pulpit grew. 
(53-56, 85-88) 

Further changes just as grotesque and deliberate turn the 
kitchen kettle into a church bell, the roasting-jack into a 
steeple clock, and the bedstead into pews where people still 
may sleep. But in the second metamorphosis, when old Baucis 
and Philemon branch and bud into yew-trees, disconcertedly 
talking as they bud, Swift writes more characteristically, fit- 
ting easy, exclamatory conversation to the requirements of 
rhyme and meter as he later did so wonderfully in the verses 
on his death and other poems: 

They went by chance, amidst their talk, 
To the church-yard, to fetch a walk: 
When Baucis hastily cry'd out, 
My dear, I see your forehead sprout! 
Sprout, quoth the man, what's this, you tell us? 
I hope you don't believe me jealous: 
But yet, methinks, I feel it true; 
And really, yours is budding too— 
Nay,— now I cannot stir ray foot; 
It feels as if 'twere taking root. 

Though ''Baucis and Philemon," even with its inescapably 
rude ending of "stubb'd and burnt it," is one of the few 
Swiftian poems critics have called lovable, they have taken 
most interest in what it reveals of Addison's attempt to 
smooth his friend into a more acceptable, properer poet. In 
this attempt Addison was, luckily for Swift, in the long run 
unsuccessful; but when he took this poem critically in hand, 
before it was printed, he found fault with many of its lines, 
so that Swift is recorded as saying that "Mr. Addison made 
him blot out fourscore, add fourscore, and alter fourscore. 
The portion of the manuscript in Swift's hand, now in the 
Morgan Library, is longer by fifty-two lines, and is livelier 


by almost as many, than the corresponding version that was 
refined and dignified to please Addison. The lines thrown out 
were largely Swiftian give-and-take of conversation between 
wandering saints and unhospitable householders they call 
"a pack of churlish boors." Probably the poem did not suffer 
from deletion of 

One surly clown lookt out and said, 
I'll fling the p pot on your head .... 


They call'd at ev'ry dore; Good people, 
My comrade's blind, and I'm a creeple. 

But it was overnice counsel that changed a phrase like "went 
clamb'ring' to "climb' d slowly after" in the description of 
the metamorphosed wall. Though Swift gave up the more 
visual, more typical, less "poetic" word, he returned to it 
a f e w years later, when he had decided to write only like him- 
self, with 

The tortoise thus, with motion slow, 
Will clamber up a wall .... 
("To the Rev. Mr. Daniel Jackson," 


He knew that neither Addison's vocabulary nor anyone else's 
was like his own in which he intentionally wrote on "simple 
topicks told in rime," using the plain, live, right word. 



Oftener than most writers Swift intends to surprise through 
his verses and epigrams, pulling the chair out from under the 
inattentive or unsuspecting reader. He surprises the reader 
more insidiously, less abruptly, by the trick of parody. His 
scorn for cant and his love for satire were congenital, and 
especially when the cant was poetic he could not resist a 
rhymed parody to scotch the humbug and uncover the insin- 


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cerity oT its poetical gewgaws in the light of satire. In this 
attempt he wielded high burlesque to fight, more relentlessly 
than any other important figure in English literature, the 
"romantic" view of poetry. It is hard to understand why Dr. 
Johnson found so little to approve in Swift's verses; for they 
take pains to ridicule the mythological imagery, unconvincing 
shepherds, and fatuous colloquies that the Doctor deplored 
in Milton's "Lycidas" and elsewhere. What Dr. Johnson only 
complained of, Swift lambasted: his weapon of complaint 
against such a pastoral vacuum, emptily imitated by poets 
after Milton, was that of extreme parody in a series of verses. 
The parody was deserved. When Thomas Flatman, for in- 
stance, wrote of his own son's death, he could not honestly 
mourn in poetry, but attitudinized with cries of: 

Alexis! dear Alexis! lovely boy! 

my Damon! Palaemon! snatch'd away. . . 

Through the enameled meadows of Flatman's poems wander 
"bright" Castabella, "poor" Celia, Strephon who was "the 
wonder of the plains," "dear" Castara, and other lovely 
nymphs and sexy shepherds whose names might have come 
from labels on bottles of cough-syrup. In one of his pastoral 
dialogues Flatman's lovely Parthenia inquires, with ingen- 
uousness one does not meet again until Wordsworth's peas- 
ants begin asking questions, what is meant by death. When 
Castara is reluctant to tell her the cruel truth, Parthenia 
winningly persuades to be told it, and having heard, exclaims: 

Alas! Why will they use me so, 
A virgin that no evil do? 

Flatman's odes annoyed the Earl of Rochester, who in satir- 
ical ways preceded Swift, into calling their author "that slow 
drudge." One of Rochester's own songs begins unprettily, 
"Fair Chloris in a pig-sty lay." It is easy to imagine how 
much more annoyed than Rochester Swift was at reading of 
etherial Parthenias and Celias. He had seen nothing like them 
in Dublin or London or anywhere else in real life, doubted 
that anyone else had, and objected to their interminable poetic 


rendezvous. He set out to remind the world of what human 
beings are really like: 

Or should a porter make enquiries 
For Chloe, Sylvia, Phillis, Iris; 
Be told the lodging, lane, and sign, 
The bow'rs that hold those nymphs divine; 
Fair Chloe would perhaps be found 
With footmen tippling under ground; 
The charming Sylvia beating flax, 
Her shoulders mark'd with bloody tracks; 
Bright Phillis mending ragged smocks; 
And radiant Iris in the pox. 

These are the goddesses enroll'd 
In Curll's Collections, new and old, 
Whose scoundrel fathers would not know 'em, 
If they should meet 'em in a poem. 

("To Stella, Who Collected and Trans- 
cribed His Poems," 39-52) 

Swift made certain that these young ladies, no longer arti- 
ficially "fair," "charming," "bright," and "radiant," should 
be met in poetry. If the reader is disarmed by the prepossess- 
ing title of "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Written 
for the Honour of the Fair Sex," 1731, he is warned of parody 
by the second line of the poem, where a single negative makes 
the difference: 

Corinna, pride of Drury-Lane, 
For whom no shepherd sighs in vain; 


but the reader is hardly prepared for the dreadful disrobing 
that follows, revealing Corinna as a prostitute ravaged by 
disease and bad dreams. And although we are charmingly 
told of the heroine in "Strephon and Chloe," 1731, that 

So beautiful a nymph appears 
But once in twenty thousand years, 



the proof of her loveliness is somewhat unconventional: she 

Would so discreetly things dispose, 
None ever saw her pluck a rose. 
Her dearest comrades never caught her 
Squat on her haras, to make maid's water. 


That is surprising and witty parody of the nymphs of poetry 
whose only necessity in life is to charm sighs from an inex- 
haustible retinue of shepherds whose only necessity, in turn, 
is to be charmed, and whose sheep, if there were enough to 
go around, must certainly have wandered from the enameled 
plains and perished. 

In Swift's "Pastoral Dialogue," 1729, there are no cries of 
"0 my Damon" nor any Celadon's whimper of "I faint, I gasp, 
I pant, my eyes are set." Though they speak hilariously with- 
in the established pattern for pastoral dialogues, Swift's Der- 
mot and Sheela, digging weeds, are realistically rural in 
appearance, ways, and soeech. They declare their love and 
jealousy in talk of a shared crust and tobacco-plug, torn 
breeches, and kisses stolen behind a ditch. There are sur- 
prising contrasts like that when the innocently poetic line 
"Sharp are the stones, take thou this rushy mat" is followed 
by a flatly unpoetic explanation of the offer: "The hardest 
bum will bruise with sitting squat." 


When you with Oonah stood behind a ditch, 
I peept, and saw you kiss the dirty bitch. 
Dermot, how could you touch those nasty sluts I 
I almost wisht this spud were in your guts. 


If Oonah once I kiss'd, forbear to chide: 
Her aunt's my gossip by my father's side: 
But, if I ever touch her lips again, 
May I be doom'd for life to weed in rain. 


0, could I earn for thee, my lovely lass, 
A pair of brogues to bear thee dry to Mass! 
But see, where Nor ah with the sowins comes— 
Then let us rise, and rest our weary bums. 

(37-44, 49-52) 

"Dirty bitch," "guts," and "weed in rain" are substituted 
for "sly charmer," "heart," and "woo in vain" from the kind 
of dialogue Swift is ridiculing. The change of the single last 
word in the final line, from "Then let us rise, and rest our 
weary LIMBS," caps the wit of the parody. 

Herbert Davis has pointed out the same effect at the con- 
clusion of one of Swift's lampoons on Marlborough, "A Satir- 
ical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General," 1722. 
"It begins," Mr. Davis says, "so quietly, with a sneer that 
is hardly perceptible, proceeds with a few crude jokes, as 
though the subject were worth no serious consideration, and 
ends with a sort of dismissal as complete as it is devas- 

His Grace! impossible! what dead! 

Of old age too, and in his bed! 

And could that Mighty Warrior fall? 

And so inglorious, after all! 

Well, since he's gone, no matter how, 

The last loud trump must wake him now: 

And, trust me, as the noise grows stronger, 

He'd wish to sleep a little longer. 

And could he be indeed so old 

As by the news-papers we're told? 

Threescore, I think, is pretty high; 

'Twas time in conscience he should die. 

Let pride be taught by this rebuke, 
How very mean a thing's a Duke; 
From all his ill-got honours flung, 
Turn'd to that dirt from whence he sprung. 

(1-12, 29-32) 


Substitute "earthly honours" and "to that dust," Mr. Davis 
suggests, and the final lines are conventionally elegiac, and 
hackneyed. But Swift's parody is insidious as well as witty. 
It not only expresses distaste for Marlborough, makes a crit- 
icism of vainglory, and shows a scorn for a certain fashion 
in literature, but through honest realism it makes pompous 
cant phrases forever absurd, just as a caricature can wickedly 
make a face forever laughable. Contrasted with Swift's "Sa- 
tirical Elegy," Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke 
of Wellington" seems a little embarrassing, however sincerely 
felt that poem may have been. Read alongside Swift's "Turn'd 
to that dirt from whence he sprung," Thomas Flatman's epitaph 
on the Earl of Sandwich seems unctuous and insincere in 
phrases like "dust of that illustrious man," "nobly courted 
death," and "Sandwich the Good, the Great, the Brave." 
For the most part Swift seems to have had only types rather 
than specific poems in mind when he wrote his burlesques. 
One of his rhymed attacks on Richard Tighe, however, is a 
line-for-line parody of the poem "Clad All in White," by Cow- 
ley, whom Swift had once seriously wished to imitate. Now, 
in "Clad All in Brown," 1728, he imitates only to make a 
vicious caricature of what in his youth seemed beautiful. In 
six stanzas that had sung amorously of a mistress' fair charms, 
he changes pretty into coarse, with a vocabulary of "stink," 
"brute," "mud," "turds," "foulness," "filth," and "bawds." 


Fairest thing that shines below, Foulest brute that stinks below, 

Why in this robe dost thou Why in this brown dost thou 

appear? appear? 

Wouldst thou a white most per- For, would'st thou make a 

feet show, fouler show, 

Thou must at all no garment Thou must go naked all the 

wear: year. 

Thou wilt then seem much whit- Fresh from the mud a wallow- 

er so, ing sow 

Than winter when 'tis cold Would then be not so brown 

with snow. as thou. 



Like the clever and cruel political caricatures of Gillray, 
this parody is meant to vex its subject at whatever cost to 
niceties. Like Gillray's political cartoons with which public 
figures were later mercilessly bombarded, "Clad All in Brown" 
was only one of the libelous insults with which Swift vexed 
his enemy Richard Tighe. 

Swift's most perfect parody in verse, whose melodious 
lines are a pastiche of ready-made, high-toned phrases, is 
"A Love Song, in the Modern Taste," 1733. All its "harmon- 
ious numbers," "soft Elysian plains," and "dying vows," 
adapted from Ovid, are soothingly fitted together to make al- 
most no sense at all. Swift, the great admirer of naturalness 
and common sense, fixes a Cupid here, a Cynthia there, to 
create the familiar sound of conventional love verse but care- 
fully goes no further than sound. He observes in his first 
stanza that Art is here usurping the place of Nature (or Nature 
realized through Ovid). It is Art in the vacuous taste that 
annoyed him into writing parody: 

Flutt'ring spread thy purple pinions, 

Gentle Cupid o'er ray heart; 
I a slave to thy dominions; 

Nature must give way to Art. 

Mild Arcadians, ever blooming, 
Nightly nodding o'er your flocks, 

See my weary days consuming, 
All beneath yon flow'ry rocks. 

Melancholly smooth Meander, 

Swiftly purling in a round, 
On thy margin lovers wander, 

With thy flow'ry chaplets crown'd. 

Thus when Philomela drooping, 

Softly seeks her silent mate; 
Se e the bird of Juno stooping. 

Melody resigns to Fate. 
(1-8, 25-32) 


Coming from the hand of Swift, "A l/ove Song" might be ex- 
pected to bring surprise through his characteristic substitu- 
tion of coarse words and phrases. The reader awaits a "bitch" 
or "bum" or "stink" to appear suddenly among the eight 
flowery stanzas; but the surprise this time comes instead 
from the poem's never rising, never shifting from its sweet, 
silly melody. And "Melody," the verses conclude, if there is 
a conclusion, "resigns to Fate."* 

Just as his "Love Song" wittily criticizes the sublimity- 
without-sense that seemed to be the fate of honest poetry, so 
"A Cantata" burlesques what Swift felt was wrong with music 
in the Augustan Age. "The town is running mad after a new 
opera," he once wrote to Ambrose Philips. "Poetry and good 
sense are dwindling like echo with repetition and voice . . . 
A good old lady five miles out of town asked me the other 
day what these uproars were that her daughter was always 
going to." It was a time of operas, choruses, and choirs: 
everybody sang, as Hogarth shows in his engraving of the 
indignant musician outside whose window the entire town is 
making music, even the chimney-sweep singing in his chim- 
ney. It was a time of long-winded cantatas and Italianate 
songs whose words grandiloquently and repetitiously sought 
to imitate musical notes rather than make good sense. So 
Swift wrote words for a cantata in which the operatic eunuchs, 
prima donnas, or neighborhood chorus might hold their long 
notes, rush excitedly through staccato phrases, trill, soar, 
warble, and be free of the encumbrance of meaning. It con- 

See, See. . . . Ce-lia, Ce-lia 

Dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, dies, 

While true lov-ers eyes 

•It has not hitherto been noted that these final stanzas re- 
semble lines from Pope, to whom the poem has sometimes 
been attributed: 

Thus on Meander's flow'ry margin lies 
The expiring swan, and as he sings he dies. 
(The Rape of the Lock, V, 65-66) 


Weep-ing sleep, sleep-ing weep, weep-ing sleep. (Slow) 
Bo peep, bo peep, bo peep, bo peep, peep, bo bo peep. 

Thomas Arne, the talented composer of settings for texts 
from Milton and Shakespeare, as well as for Thomson's "Rule 
Britannia," wanted to set music to this cantata-to-end-can- 
tatas; and Faulkner, Swift's publisher in Dublin, hoped it 
would "run more than the Beggar's Opera...." But when 
Faulkner printed it with music by the Rev. John Echlin the 
year after Swift's death, there was no such success. 

Swift himself had suggested Gay's writing the "Newgate 
pastoral, among the whores and thieves there," that became 
the most famous musical parody of its kind, laughing the 
opera-singing Italians back into the wings of the stage. When 
tunes from The Beggar's Opera were sung everywhere in Lon- 
don, and even in Dublin, Swift wrote to Gay to inquire es- 
pecially about the popularity of the song beginning "When 
you censure the age." That song and two others, beginning 
"Through all the employments of life" and "Since laws were 
made for ev'ry degree," have sometimes been credited to 
Swift, who may at least have made suggestions for them. 


One of Swift's poems growing from indignant comment upon 
topical events holds critical respect as a diatribe almost un- 
equaled in the literature of the world. Characterized as the 
bitterest of his philippics, most terrible of his satires, and a 
nightmare of "black fire and horror," "The Legion Club," 
1736, seems never to have been read without a measure of 
awe, Dr. Delany going so far as to think it Swift's greatest 
accomplishment in verse. It expresses his acrimonious con- 
tempt for the Irish Parliament he named the Legion Club after 
the Unclean Spirit that answered: "My name is Legion: for we 
are many." In jest that was not wholly playful Swift had 
written to his friend Lord Orrery that rather than keep com- 


pany with his Lordship who had just come "reeking from that 
abominable Club," he would leave Dublin; and to Sheridan he 
wrote: "The Club meets in a week, and I determine to leave 
the town as soon as possible, for I am not able to live with 
the air of such rascals. . . ." Early in 1736, when the House 
of Commons, by resolution, favored the cattle-grazers' wish 
to be rid of tithes from which the clergy benefited, Swift ex- 
pressed his accumulated resentment. Fulfilling through rhyme 
his wish for violent action, he would have the Irish Parliament 
House blasted by the devil and all the "rascals" shut in cells 
like gibbering madmen. 

The opening lines are casually and disarmingly good-natured, 
with a humorous rhyme of "oft I" and "lofty," a half-told jest, 
a description of the Parliament House, and no suggestion of 
the unleashed invective to follow. But when the question of 
the ninth line— "Tell us, what this pile contains?"— 'receives 
an answer, the invective, though still only snarling, begins. 
It snaps and bites by the time Swift puts the "abominable 
Club" in a place for lunatics and goes to watch them, each 

With a passage left to creep in 
And a hole above for peeping. 

Lending elevation of phrase, for contrast and juxtaposition of 
styles, the Aeneid is imitated: 

All ye gods, who rule the soul 
Styx, through Hell whose waters roll! 
Let me be allow' d to tell 
What I heard in yonder Hell. 

Near the door an entrance gapes, 
Gouded round with antic shapes; 
Poverty, and Grief, and Care, 
Causeless Joy, and true Despair; 
Discord periwigg'd with snakes, 
See the dreadful strides she takes. 



But the borrowed Latin Hell soon gives way to an eighteenth* 
century English Bedlam in which Swift now converses matter- 
of-factly and characteristically with the keeper, as though on 
a dreadful and fantastic sightseeing jaunt. He observes four- 
teen of the "rascals" as they "sit a picking straws" and 
"dabble in their dung." Alongside these manifestations of 
lunacy Swift shows himself, representing the rational world, 
casually tipping the keeper, making interested inquiries, and 
taking snuff as he watches the madmen. 

When I saw the Keeper frown, 
Tipping him with half a crown; 
Now, said I, we are alone, 
Name your heroes, one by one. 

Keeper, shew me where to fix 
On the puppy pair of Dicks; 
By their lanthorn jaws and leathern, 
You might swear they both are brethren: 
Dick Fitz-Baker, Dick the Player, 
Old acquaintance, are you there? 
Dear companions hug and kiss, 
Toast old Glorious in your piss. 
Tye them Keeper in a tether, 
Let them stare and stink together; 
Both are apt to be unruly, 
Lash them daily, lash them duly, 
Though 'tis hopeless to reclaim them, 
Scorpion rods perhaps may tame them. 
(133-136, 145-158) 

Critics who have called "The Legion Club" a nightmare of 
demoniac horror have had in mind the cumulative effect of its 
railing abuse. The effect is a conscious one: lines like "Lash 
them daily,, lash them duly," for instance, perform exactly, 
through meter and sound, what Swift intended of them. And he 
turns from violence to elegant malice: 

Keeper, I must now retire, 
You have done what I desire: 


But I feel my spirits spent, 

With the noise, the sight, the scent. 

Pray be patient, you shall find 
Half the best are still behind: 
You have hardly seen a score, 
I can shew two hundred more. 

Keeper, I have seen enough, 
Taking then a pinch of snuff; 
I concluded, looking round 'em, 
May their God, the Devil confound 'em. 


"I have written a very masterly poem on the Legion Club," 
Swift wrote, "which, if the printer will be condemned to be 
hanged for it, you will see in a three-penny book..." For 
him, its effectiveness lay partly in the fact that it was a li- 
belous, hanging matter. Alfred Lord Tennyson, his son has 
recorded, "was greatly impressed by the deadly earnest and 
savagery, and let me say sadness of Swift's 'Legion Club.' 
He has more than once read it to me. . ." For Tennyson the 
metrical devices, the drama, the power of feeling, the deadly 
earnestness, the paradox, and the tragic irony in the poem 
would have been of interest; but the "sadness," one is in- 
clined to think, he read into it from Victorian elegies. 

Perhaps the real surprise in "The Legion Club," as in 
Swift's other political lampoons, springs out of the expert, 
appropriate expression of an essentially prosaic content. This 
effect is even more surprising in his quieter poems that do not 
try so desperately, for whatever reason, to shame and irritate 
and call names. When Swift wrote on "simple topicks told in 
rime," applying the language of prose to verse, he was still 
the great master of wit. In A Critical History of English 
Poetry Grierson and Smith find surprise in the effect of wit 
that comes from Swift's straightforward, sensible prose ad- 
mirably presented as verse. They perhaps have in mind the 
wonderful conversational poems, the homely poems to Stella 
that could serve as models for all sincere statements of af- 


fection,and Swift's self-conscious poems on himself. Actually, 
of course, as we have seen and shall further see, what ap- 
pears to be "straightforward" in his verse, and in his prose, 
is very often an intentional half-truth, cold irony, or the most 
walloping kind of parody. 

Sometimes Swift's urgent wish to describe the ridiculous or 
vile made his strongest verse seem to him too ineffectual and 
blind for his purpose, and he wanted the added power of visual 
vexation like that in Hogarth's later caricatures of Wilkes and 
Charles Churchill. Toward the end of "The Legion Club," 
when he had vilified, abused, and denounced the men he 
hated, Swift expressed this wish for assistance in his wit: 

How I want thee, humorous Hogart? 
Thou I hear, a pleasant rogue art; 
Were but you and I acquainted, 
Every monster should be painted; 
You should try your graving tools 
On this odious group of fools; 
Draw the beasts as I describe 'em, 
Form their features, while I gibe them; 
Draw them like, for I assure you, 
You will need no car'caturcw 
Draw them so that we may trace 
All the soul in every face. 


Though Hogarth preferred "characters" to "caricaturas," he 
shared Swift's wish to reform by any means, protesting the 
excesses of contemporary Dutch art, for example, by public 
laughter, ridicule, and by parodies "scratched in the true 
Dutch taste." Both the artist and the poet for their purposes 
sometimes depicted vulgar life in which the depraved mother 
pours gin down her infant's throat, the politicians are maudlin- 
drunk, the old man makes water against a wall, and Justice 
is a blowzy goddess with only one eye covered. They used, 
too, for their purposes the surprise of juxtaposition wherein 
the powdered and beribboned fop stands in the street with 
his toe almost touching the dead, decaying cat. 


We do not nowadays deplore the invention and surprise in 
Hogarth's engravings, but instead praise them for their wit 
and genius. In Swift's poems of wit— "The Day of Judgement," 
"A Description of a City Shower," "Baucis and Philemon," 
"The Legion Club," and perhaps even some others that are 
almost forgotten— there is an analogous show of genius that 
waits for general praise. 



To vex the whole world was Swift's intention. Poetic 
variety, wicked wit, and the horse-laugh and dry rub of humor 
were useful implements in the hands of this churchman and 
reformer, who meant to persuade, scold, and preach against 

From the planet of my birth, 
I encounter vice with mirth. 

As my method of reforming 

Is by laughing, not by storming . . . 

("Epistle to a Lady," 141-142, 229-230) 

He could spend his rage in a jest, he said, and the jest more 
likely than a serious sermon might assist in driving out man- 
kind's hypocrisy and hate. Righteously indignant rather than 
cheaply cynical or sadistic, he thought wit the most effective 
way to express his indignation: the lash for him was more 
persuasive than the cudgel. In his life-long earnest attempt 


to expose vice and folly, he recognized his similarity to 
Latin satirists who knew the power of the ridiculous: 

It is well observed by Horace, 
Ridicule has greater pow*r 
To reform the world, than sour. 
("Epistle to a Lady," 198-200) 

And so in many of his poems he sought through laughter to 
call the age's attention to its ills, using wit to shock man- 
kind into sanity, often distorting in a furious, grotesque fash- 
ion meant to remind the sick world of its own distortions. 
The incorporation of divinity and wit is masterly in Swift's 
prose pieces like "An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing 
of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be At- 
tended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps not Produce 
Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby." Their foolery 
has a grave and earnest purpose. Using verse, Swift similarly 
delivers a sermon with an appended moral in the witty "Beasts 
Confession to the Priest," 1732, which carries the subtitle 
"On Observing How Most Men Mistake Their Own Talents." 
Like an old beast-fable it draws a parallel between talking 
animals and men to show our universal folly of admitting only 
to faults that are virtues in excess. Ironic lines that slyly 
comment on hypocrisy in religion introduce the fable: 

When beasts could speak (the learned say 
They still can do so every day) 
It seems they had religion then, 
As much as now we find in men. 


Commanded to confess their sins, the wolf admits that he 
has innocently broken his fast; the ass confesses himself a 
wit; the swine is over-proud of his shape and beauty; the 
ape is a stoic; and the goat explains his chastity. Among 
men, likewise, the lawyer insists he has never squeezed a 
needy client; the knave who seeks a place pretends he cannot 
flatter; the chaplain trusts only to merit for promotion; the 


doctor is too altruistic; the card-sharper is never a winner; 

The statesman tells you with a sneer, 
His fault is to be too sincere; 
And, having no sinister ends, 
Is apt to disoblige his friends* 

He thought it base for men in stations, 
To crowd the court with their relations: 
His country was his dearest mother, 
And ev'ry virtuous man his brother . . . 
(141-144, 177-180) 

In those mocking lines Swift writes with more power and 
persuasion than when he occasionally seeks to be as homi- 
letic as any poet concerned less with wit than with a moral. 
But even when his subject is "The Birth of Manly Virtue, 
from Callimachus," 1725, he turns it into a pleasant tribute 
to Lord Carteret; his "Desire and Possession," 1727, is the 
fairly exciting allegory of brothers who both perish in their 
race toward Fortune; and "On Censure," 1721, like some of 
his greater poems, drops suddenly in its final couplet from an 
impersonal discussion of "detracting people" to a personal 
and colloquial solution: 

The most effectual way to baulk 
Their malice, is-— to let them talk. 


Swift's sermons, miscellaneous writings on religion, and 
"moral" verses are often in a style deceptively proper and 
plain. Another poet-preacher, John Donne, had composed both 
his sermons and poems from subtle conceits and knotted loops 
of rhetoric. In prayers and sacred hymns he played with puns 
even more rudely forced than those in his love-poems. Now, a 
century later, Swift's sermon "On the Causes of the Wretched 
Condition of Ireland," for instance, or his sermon "On Doing 
Good," deals with problems of the day rn plain language in- 
tended to touch the common sense of its most ignorant hearer. 


Indeed, in his "'Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Enter'd 
into Holy Orders," Swift warns against the old seventeenth- 
century wit based upon style: 

I cannot forbear warning you in the most earnest man- 
ner against endeavouring at wit in your sermons, because 
by the strictest computation, it is very near a million to 
one that you have none; and because too many of your 
calling have consequently made themselves everlastingly 
ridiculous by attempting it. I remember several young 
men in this town, who could never leave the pulpit under 
half a dozen conceits; and this faculty adhered to those 
gentlemen a longer or shorter time exactly in proportion 
to their several degrees of dulness; accordingly, I am 
told that some of them retain it to this day. I heartily 
wish the brood were at an end. 

In this "Letter to a Young Gentleman* ' first appeared the 
renowned phrase that Dr. Johnson applied to Swift's poems; 
"Proper words in proper places," Swift tells the Young 
Gentleman, "make the true definition of a style." He goes 
on to advise against obscurities, ambiguities, and vagrant 
emotion in the pulpit, where the simple purpose of a sermon 
should not be to spellbind but to tell people their duty and 
then convince them of its truth. Do not attempt to explain 
religious mysteries, he warns the Young Gentleman: for, 
once explained, they are mysteries no longer. Do not waste 
breath in preaching against atheism, he adds: for atheists 
will not be in the church to hear, and it is foolhardy to proffer 
doubts that churchgoers may find attractive. 

Swift's own sermons and "didactic" poems— they could 
hardly, like Donne's, be called "divine"— are seldom so 
simple and proper as they pretend. They can be as ironical 
as the "Argument against Abolishing Christianity" or as 
mocking as the "abstract" of Anthony Collins's "Discourse 
of Free Thinking," purportedly put into "plain English .. . 
for the use of the poor." They borrow the "bite" of Jove on 
Judgment Day, use la bagatelle for purposes of divinity, and 
draw a moral from the foolish bric-a-brac of a coquette's mind. 
They bring the force of wit through irony and paradox and 



Shock alone, however, has been the reaction to certain of 
his poems. Though shocking literature, if it really is literature, 
has a way of turning respectable with time, and what censors 
frown upon in one age may in another be memorized by school- 
boys for their teachers, after two centuries there are certain 
poems by Jonathan Swift that are embarrassing to scholars, 
shunned by anthologists, and unknown to almost everyone 
else. Even the most dispassionate modern critics have called 
these poems nasty, noxious, disgusting, and painful, and have 
hastened past with eyes averted. "Strephon and Chloe," 
1731, describing a wedding night, seems especially to have 
frightened readers with its casual talk of armpits and toes. 
It is otherwise hard to understand why the poem has not been 
recognized as one of the wittiest and one of the most serious 
of all Swift's efforts. Its surprises are thick-coming and varied. 
Parody in the poem is first suggested by the borrowed, pastor- 
al names of the bridal pair; but even with "hampers full of 
bleeding hearts" and "infant Loves with purple wings," the 
parody would not surprise without Swiftian lines like 

. . . pigeons billing, sparrows treading, 
Fair emblems of a fruitful wedding. 


The rites performM, the parson paid, 
In state return'd the grand parade . . . 

(51-52, 67-68) 

Here the humorous joining of formal and colloquial serves 
as the motif for the whole poem: this is Strephon's story of 
how he idealized his bride as a deity only to discover her a 
human animal like him, his poetic dream becoming as much a 
down-to-earth reality as the shameless sparrows and the fee 
for the parson. At first poor Strephon, perplexed and embar- 


rassed in his nightcap, does not know how to approach his 

The weather and his love were hot: 


Can such a deity endure 
A mortal human touch impure? 
How did the humbled swain detest 
His prickled beard, and hairy breast! 
His night-cap border' d round with lace 
Could give no softness to his face. 

.(81, 89-94) 

To reassure himself he reflects that "A certain goddess, God 
knows who," once bestowed love on mortal man; and he has 
hopes. But his Chloe, unlike the goddess, is unreceptive— 
for a very human reason that Swift expresses in an elegant 
couplet. Incredulous, Strephon becomes aware that his celes- 
tial nymph (who has drunk twelve cups of tea) "brings a 
vessel into bed": 

Carminative and diuretick, 

Will damp all passion sympathetick . . . 

But, soon with like occasions prest, 
He boldly sent his hand in quest, 
(Inspir'd with courage from his bride) 
To reach the pot on t'other side. 
And as he fill'd the reeking vase, 
Let fly a rouzer in her face. 

The little Cupids hov'ring round, 
(As pictures prove) with garlands crown'd, 
Abasht at what they saw and heard, 
Flew off, nor evermore appear'd. 
(133-134, 187-196) 

Though he may cling fast to the idea that certain subjects 
are not allowed in poetry, the modern reader will recognize 
that the first-quoted couplet, with its "Carminative and diu- 
retick," would grace the polysyllabic "Mr. Eliot's Sunday 


Morning Service." But while there are calloused feet, sweat, 
and dirty hands in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, there is no 
"rouzer."The surprise of the line in which that word appears, 
staling the reader to laughter or at least to exclamation, 
dispels the parody of pastoral verse. Immediately, then, Swift 
shows cupids in flight; and from the unreal, disappointing 
world of pretty pictures, Strephon and his Chloe change to 
one still more disappointing. They accept, Swift says, a 
coarse world without beauty, decency, or concern for opinion; 
and they "learn to call a spade a spade." For Swift the re- 
lationship characterized by Strephon's sudden rouzer is even 
more offensive than hypocritical pretense of otherworldliness. 
For over a hundred lines he earnestly draws his moral from the 
story: marriage should be built of enduring materials, he says: 
and, because beauty and youth are fleeting, they are not suf- 

On sense and wit your passion found, 
By decency cemented round; 
Let prudence and good nature strive, 
To keep esteem and love alive. 
Then, come old age whene'er it will, 
Your friendship shall continue still: 
And thus a mutual gentle fire, 
Shall never but with life expire. 

Here the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, hoping he has 
prodded his reader into awareness and startled him into atten- 
tion, confronts him with a sermon of wise advice. Sense and 
wit, he wrote more than once in moral earnestness, are the 
best foundation for a way of life. "I have been only a man of 
rhymes," he said in a letter, ". . . yet never without a moral 
view"; it was a view that commended Stella, whom he re- 
spected most among women, for her "fund of wit and sense" 
and found Vanessa, as a "nymph of wit and sense," pleasing 
to his eye. When it is read alongside conventionally naughty 
songs of the period, in which the institution of marriage it- 
self is kicked at, Swift's poem seems obviously didactic and 
"moral" in purpose. 


Like "Strephon and Chloe," Swift's earlier poem called 
"The Progress of Marriage," 1722, presents the case of a 
husband and wife who share no "mutual gentle fire." It de- 
picts the contempt of a young coquette for her older husband 
and concludes with Swift's vindictive expression of contempt 
for the coquette, soon widowed. Lacking either wit or sense, 
their empty marriage provides an entertaining subject from 
which to draw a serious moral observation: 

Her spouse desires his coffee soon, 

She rises to her tea at noon » , - 

And drops him at the church, to pray 

While she drives on to see the play . . . 

(He) goes alone to take his rest 

In bed, where he can spare her best. 

They have 

No common ligament that binds 

The various textures of their minds, 

Their thoughts, and actions, hopes, and fears, 

Less corresponding than their years. 

(37-38, 81-82, 89-90, 33-36) 

"The Progress of Marriage" and "Strephon and Chloe" 
show admirably how Swift reconciled divinity and wit. Per- 
haps not so clinically interesting as the nineteenth-century 
idea of a mad, disgusting Swift, the idea of a moralist and 
reformer is nevertheless the truer one. It is nothing new. Dr. 
Delany described his friend's poems as "prescriptions of an 
able physician, who had, in truth, the health of his patients 
at heart, but laboured to attain that end, not only by strong 
emetics, but also, by all the most nauseous, and offensive 
drugs, and potions, that could be administered." Recent 
studies by Quintana and Davis have stressed the element of 
moral satire in much that Swift wrote, especially in the fourth 
book of Gulliver's Travels that is so often frowned upon, the 
cold-blooded Modest Proposal, and the "unprintable" poems. 
An earnest call to the conscience of the world, to be heard 
in those works, is sounded explicitly in the epitaph Swift 


wrote for his tomb in St. Patrick's Cathedral. The "saeva 
indignatio" of that epitaph is quoted frequently enough, but 
there is more to it: 


A dean's appeal for us to serve human liberty has not stuck 
in the mind like his hairy Yahoos, servings of infants' flesh, 
and women in their dressing-rooms. Because he sometimes 
chose these subjects, Swift's name has been pinned to anon- 
ymous rhymes, like "The Art of Wenching," that had only 
coarseness of their own and needed his name to lend them 


Women in their dressing-rooms were for Swift a symbol of 
mankind's vanity, hypocrisy, and imperfection. With this 
symbol he at times merely amused himself and at other times 
suggested a moral as T.S. Eliot does with his bored typist 
who accepts love on her divan. Although Eliot provides a 
Swiftian inventory of undergarments and dressing-room para- 
phernalia, he is restrained from stepping into his poem with 
a plain statement of distaste like Swift's: 

Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison'd. 

That is the concluding line to "A Beautiful Young Nymph 
Going to Bed," but it could serve as well to conclude "The 
Lady's Dressing-Roorc," "The Progress of Beauty," or 
"Cassinus and Peter." In each there is the poetic counter- 


part to Captain Lemuel Gulliver's displeasure at what he 
saw and smelled in the apartments of the gigantic maids of 
honor in Brobdingnag: 

For, they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on 
their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their 
toylet directly before their naked bodies; which, I am 
sure, to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or 
from giving me any other (e)motions than those of horror 
and disgust. Their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, 
so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a mole 
here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging 
from it thicker than pack-threads; to say nothing further 
concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at 
all scruple while I was by, to discharge what they had 
drunk, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a 
vessel that held above three tuns. 

In all commentaries, observations, and essays on Gulliver's 
Travels, though there is complaint about the indignity of 
Swift's coarseness in naming nakedness and excretory pro- 
cesses, there is no misunderstanding of his serious intention 
to deflate human pride and folly. Brobdingnagian maidens 
were charming companions to their Brobdingnagian friends, 
but they were human; being human, they were imperfect. A 
misanthrope, perhaps, Swift nevertheless had enough faith in 
human beings to try, even by trick and jest and shock, to re- 
form that imperfection. 

In "A Beautiful Young Nymph," 1731, he describes the 
wages of sin as effectively as a preacher shouting hell-fire 
and brimstone, or the photographs in a medical treatise, or 
the scenes drawn by Hogarth for "A Harlot's Progress." The 
rather obtrusive moral affixed to Moll Hackabout's disinte- 
gration and punishment as Hogarth draws her, when she is 
revealed as a hopelessly miserable creature in miserable sur- 
roundings, is the moral Swift affixes to the picture of Corinna 
going to bed. She is a "batter'd, strolling toast" of London 
streets. There is the fascination here of sordid detail like 
Hogarth's in the exact setting down of hideous wig, littered 
room, and despair as Corinna returns to her bed at midnight 


to remove daubed paint, artificial hair and eyebrows, glass 
eye, teeth, cheek-plumpers, breast-props, corsets, and bol- 
sters—unlacing, pulling, and untwisting to be free of them one 
by one, like magicians' properties. This is not sufficiently 
unattractive for Swift's purpose. The reader is spared nothing: 

With gentlest touch, she next explores 
Her shankers, issues, running sores, 
Effects of many a sad disaster; 
And then to each applies a plaister. 


If the harlot dreams, it is tormentedly and fitfully of prison, 
deportation, watchmen, constables, and bullies. Imagining 
she feels the whip-lash, she screams in her sleep. 

"The Lady's Dressing-Roora," 1730, is more dreadful 
still. Swift's eighteenth-century acquaintance Mrs. Pilkington 
recorded that her old mother threw up her dinner when she 
read the poem; and that has been almost the reaction of per- 
sons as varied as James Russell Lowell, Hippolyte Taine, 
and Aldous Huxley, though their explanations of the reaction 
are also varied. Swift's friend Lord Orrery sought to convince 
himself that "The Lady's Dressing-Room" was intended as a 
warning to inexperienced youth. For Taine in the next cen- 
tury the poem was an emotional affront that made him com- 
plain of Swift that "il a toujours le microscope en main." 
Even modern writers who have the microscope of psychology 
always in hand, object to the poem: though naturalistic de- 
tails figure large in the writings of D.H. Lawrence and Aldous 
Huxley, they both find the poem shocking, not because it 
disgusts but because of its unpleasant picture of bodily func- 
tions that they feel should be celebrated. Their diagnoses of 
Swift are in terms of undeveloped sexual consciousness, fear 
of taboo words, and infantilism (Huxley pretends to think that 
a twentieth-century Swift would write not about Yahoos but 
about Peter Pan); and they let the subject go with that. 

If a sensitive critic like Coleridge, a hundred years after 
Swift's time, dwells upon the false misanthropy, physical 
dirt, and coarseness in the writings, and if a sensible critic 

fJL4ta/6&*i*u* **£*:' /v\ C- 


like George Orwell, a hundred years later still, calls Swift 
a diseased writer who magnifies and distorts in poems like 
"A Lady's Dressing-Room," it is important to see what Swift 
really says. In the first place, he is hardly more scatological 
than others of his contemporaries. It is Smollett, and not 
Swift, who lingers in Adventures of an Atom upon the sub- 
ject of dunghills, scorbutic dysentery, close-stools, and the 
rite of posterior-worship; and it is Prior, not Swift, whose 
poem "On a Fart, Let in the House of Commons" may be 
found among his other poems entitled "God is Love," "On 
Exodus iii. 14," and "Charity Never Faileth." Gay and Pope, 
as well as Swift, thought it amusing to write verses about 
the Goddess Cloacina; and the scatological was expected in 
lampoons such as those against the Puritans. With Swift, how- 
ever, the subject is not always merely funny. It becomes 
sometimes a serious symbol, employed when he wishes to be 
most serious and compelling — in A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver, 
and certain poems. It becomes a symbol like the rose, the 
tower, the darkness, the sunflower, or the turning wheel im- 
portant in the work of other poets. "The Queen is well," 
Swift once wrote to Stella, "but I fear will be no long liver; 
for I am told she has sometimes the gout in her bowels (I hate 
the word bowels).** Hate, obsession, and seriousness make 
the symbol a disturbing and effective one when Swift writes 
of the Aeolists or the Yahoos, and it is disturbingly intro- 
duced into "The Lady's Dressing-Room." It is a symbol 
which perhaps better than any other reduces all mankind to 
a single level. In Swift's context human excrement is defined 
as the antithesis of the sublime. 

When Alexander Pope described Belinda's dressing-room 
in The Rape of the Lock, intending to mock her pretense of 
divinity, he lacked Swift's singleness of purpose: there is a 
delicate, dainty charm in Belinda's "Puffs, powders, patches, 
Bibles, billet-doux," ivory combs, and shining rows of pins. 
Celia's dressing-room as Swift depicts it in his poem is like 
a room filled to the ceiling with articles from Brobdingnag, 
its combs, towels, handkerchiefs, vials of ointment, tweezers, 
and mirror seeming as large as tables and beds. Indeed, be- 
cause tables and beds are nowhere mentioned, so far as the 


reader knows the filthy washbasin and chamberpot comprise 
the furniture. The mirror, suitably, is a magnifying glass: 

It shew'd the visage of a giant: 
A glass that can to sight disclose 
The smallest worm in Celia's nose . . . 


But if all the objects in the room were seen through a mag- 
nifying glass, they could hardly be more formidable. Celia's 
smock is soiled with "arm-pits well besmear'd"; there are 
stains on the toes of her stockings; her handkerchief is "var- 
nished o'er with snuff and snot"; her combs are filled with 
a paste of "Sweat, dandriff, powder, lead and hair"; and 
her towels are 

Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd; 
With dirt, and sweat, and ear-wax grim'd. 


If Swift had proceeded no further with "The Lady's Dress- 
ing-Room, " it would stand, with its stained garments lying 
beside the beribboned synthetic silks and its stinks mixing 
with the fog of perfumes, as a wholly successful antidote to 
all the lovely, indigestible confections that sometimes pass 
as poetry. Swift does go further. He intrudes queerly into the 
poem to speak, and speaks queerly: he, rather than Celia's 
dirty towels, makes the reader feel uneasy. He introduces an 
ingenuous Strephon to discover the sights and smells as he 
walks about the dressing-room Celia has left, and his dis- 
covery leads him to think of all women in terms of "excre- 
mental smell." Professing pity for Strephon, Swift pretends 
also to be patronizingly amused by the boy's queasy stomach: 

Should I the Queen of Love refuse, 
Because she rose from stinking ooze? 

When Celia all her glory shows, 
If Strephon would but stop his nose; 
Who now so impiously blasphemes 
Her ointments, daubs, and paints and creams, 


Her washes, slops, and every clout, 
With which he makes so foul a rout; 
He soon would learn to think like me, 
And bless his ravisht eyes to see 
Such order from confusion sprung, 
Such gaudy tulips rais'd from dung. 
(131-132, 135-144) 

In these lines the tone is somehow wrong. Is it after all one 
thing for a Restoration wit like the Earl of Dorset to sing 
"In grey hair'd Celia's wither'd arras / As nightly Lewis 
lay," and quite another thing for Dean Swift to attempt a 
similar subject in verse? He appears to have made his own 
stomach, like Strephon's, somewhat queasy by examination of 
washes and slops, so that even his Swiftian irony, when he 
pretends insensitive affection for the gaudy tulips of love, 
loses its usual force and seems to mock itself. It is as though 
the reformer has been convinced by his own argument and the 
preacher has frightened himself with his own description of 
Man's flaws and failings. 

Although Celia of "The Progress of Beauty," 1719, makes 
her appearance in alternating lines of rhyme rather than in 
couplets and she is likened, through ingenious conceit, to 
the moon, she is the same untidy Celia; and her Strephon is 
as easily bamboozled by outward appearances: 

To see her from her pillow rise 
All reeking in a cloudy steam, 
Crackt lips, foul teeth, and gummy eyes, 
Poor Strephon, how would he blaspheme! 


Still a third Celia, in "Cassinus and Peter," 1731, has driven 
Cassinus to distraction by his discovery, like that of the 
Strephons, and, one might possibly add, Swift himself, that 
she has an alimentary canal. 

While these poems were certainly written from moral and 
emotional compunctions that moved Swift, they were at the 
the same time exercises in wit, as his experiments with 


certain ideas and repeated phrases show. With slight alter- 
ations and shifting of emphasis, one line appears almost iden- 
tically in three different poems: in "The Lady's Dressing- 
Room" it is "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" That exclama- 
tion becomes a melancholy declaration in the last line of 
"Cassinus and Peter" and an unbelieving question in "Streph- 
on and Chloe." In its context in each poem the line is more 
impressive and more shocked than shocking. It represents a 
part of Swift's attempt in poetry to state one of the funda- 
mental moral and emotional problems of civilized Man, though 
in this it is too specialized to succeed wholly. 

With less effort, apparently, though he is almost as bold, 
W.B. Yeats expresses this same paradoxical idea in his 
"Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop," when he links "fair" 
with "foul" and observes that the house of love lies in a 
"place of excrement." Yeats, who in his later years used 
Swift as a model, may very well have learned this speech, so 
casually and neatly expressed, from him. But in the witty, 
deadly serious, and remarkable "unprintable" poems, which 
should more often be printed and read, Swift writes with a 
curious insistence hardly to be encountered even in the most 
"naturalistic" modern verse. 

Swift's is an insistence like that of the woodcut "Cruelty 
in Perfection," with which Hogarth hoped to reform the 
world, showing the murdered girl with her head severed from 
her body, her hand severed from her arm, and, as though that 
were not enough, her finger severed from her hand. It is an 
insistence necessary for a world that covers its ears or, when 
it listens, turns its back. To make himself heard by persons 
who complain that life is bad enough without being reminded 
of it in poetry, Swift sometimes pretended to sing a ditty or 
crack a joke or tell an odd little fable through which his 
voice grew very impatient, very insistent, and very loud. When 
his disgust shows itself, the poetry is not necessarily dis- 
pelled. Disgust and insult, as Shakespeare and Swift and cer- 
tain twentieth-century poets prove, are good subjects, perhaps 
among the few good ones that have not been worked to death. 


Modern poets have said that if verse is to become human 
again, it must first become brutal; that a poet may profit 
from the diligent study of hatred; that private disgust and 
scornful wit can be the stuff of excellent song; and that 
poetry must rub against life itself and every experience of 
life whether mean, or common, or speaking it out, unspeak- 
able. J.M. Synge, Robert Graves, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and 
W.H. Auden have all made this kind of statement and to some 
extent have demonstrated it in their poetry. Even Robert Frost, 
in 1946, commenting on the crude war poetry of the time, is 
reported as having said: "Of what I have read, the best is 
the more obscene." 

Obscenity, if it ever appears in Swift's poetry, is not an 
end in itself, although the modern reader may wish that it 
were. Through his private disgust put to rhyme, Swift meant 
to ridicule the trumped-up poetry of sighing nymphs and pant- 
ing shepherds; to snatch away the old fraud of Woman's simp- 
ering perfection; to reform the world's hypocrisy; and, raising 
his voice almost didactically, to say aloud in front of every- 
one that these frauds are a barrier to the life he praised: a 
life founded on sense and honesty and wit. 


Whilst thus I write, vast shoals of critics come, 

And on my verse pronounce their saucy doom . . . 

("To Mr. Congreve," 213-214) 

Within the past twenty-five years there have been published 
a selection from Swift's poems in handsome format, a schol- 
arly work called Swift's Verse: An Essay, and the entire 
poetical writings in three annotated volumes that are a model 
of editing. It would seem that Swift has at last been made 
accessible and can now speak for himself as a poet, if he has 
anything to say. But the selection, introduced somewhat 
grudgingly by R. Ellis Roberts and published by the Golden 
Cockerel Press in 1928, is limited to only 375 copies. In 
Swift's Verse: An Essay (London, 1929) F. Elrington Ball 
attempts only to fix the canon of the poems. This is accom- 
plished with far greater perspicacity in the three volumes of 
The Poems of Jonathan Swift (Oxford, 1937); Harold Williams, 
the editor, limits the genuine pieces to two hundred and fifty, 
thus dropping one hundred and fifty pieces that were con- 
jectural, and he seeks to aid the work of other scholars by 
determining dates of composition, collating, and providing 
textual apparatus. Anyone dealing seriously with Swift, 


whether primarily with his poetry or not, must refer to Mr. 
Williams's edition. But there is still no good edition of the 
poems to be read as poems; and there has never been an ex- 
tended consideration of what Swift was trying to do in poetry, 
to what degree he succeeded, and whether the poems them- 
selves can give pleasure to a modern reader. 

A few critics, and only very recently, have suggested the 
illumination that might come from an undismayed reading of 
what Swift wrote in rhyme. Ricardo Quintana in his Mind and 
Art of Jonathan Swift, 1936, ventures to defend some of the 
poetry against charges of triviality and ugliness. Edmund 
Wilson recommends it, in a brief review, as a paradoxical kind 
of lyric that sneers and curses while it sings. A.L. Rowse, in 
a similarly brief review, goes further to insist that whatever 
Swift accomplished in his prose he did as well in his poetry. 
Most notably, Herbert Davis in his study of "Swift's View of 
Poetry" examines the intention that lay behind the rhymed 
curses and sneers. All these critics, even those who offer 
unprecedented praise, are careful to describe the critical 
hurdle to be jumped and estimate its formidable height. No- 
body, they remind us, has ever found sublimity in the poetry 
of Jonathan Swift. Hardly anyone has tried to read the poems 
sympathetically, separating the enduring from the dross and 
judging them by Swift's own critical standards. 

When they first appeared, Swift's poems were popular at 
the booksellers', read aloud in coffeehouses, and discussed 
at court. Their topicality and metrical correctness were equal 
sources of interest. Even during Swift's lifetime, however, the 
poems were sometimes judged by standards he had specifically 
renounced. In 1728, the year Esther Johnson, "Stella," died 
and soon after he had begun his final self-exile in Ireland, a 
diatribe called Gulliveriana was published in an attempt to 
discredit the poems. The frontispiece to Gulliveriana shows 
Swift staring out upon the world. He is bewigged and wears a 
long gown, not sufficiently long to conceal what is unmis- 
takably his cloven, goatish devil's foot Aided by a lopsided 
Alexander Pope, he holds a volume of the Miscellanies aloft, 
over the horned head of a little satyr. In the foreground of the 


engraving another satyr that must be Satan himself clasps one 
hand of a posturing, parti-colored Harlequin whose other hand 
is raised, thumb to nose. According to the angry author of 
Gulliveriana, Swift's prose is "abominable," "bizarre," 
"wild," and "profane." But it is his poetry, quoted and imi- 
tated to prove it rubbish, that most offends: 

He cannot pretend ever to have writ any one piece, that 
can be called a poem, in the genuine sense of the word: 
No! he knew himself too well, ever to deviate out of his 
burlesque stile and manner; which is rhiming indeed, but 
nothing like poetry.... Low, groveling poetry all of it; 
and I challenge all the world, to show one good epic, 
elegiac or lyric poem of his; one eclogue, pastoral, or 
anything like the antients; and as he can't write like 
them, so they had no name for such a writer as he is: 
And his doggrel and burlesque had banish'd him Rome, 
notwithstanding he is so often huzza'd in Dublin. 

The name of Jonathan Smedley, the vinegarish author of 
Gulliveriana, has a kind of immortality because it is a butt 
for abuse in Pope's Dunciad and in rhymed broadsides and 
parodies by Swift. Smedley's attacks on Pope and Swift were 
venomous. He wrote the notorious verses said to have been 
attached to the door of St. Patrick's Cathedral and was respon- 
sible for The Metamorphosis, A Poem, Shewing the Change of 
Scriblerus into Snarlerus,Orthe Canine Appetite Demonstrated 
in the Persons of P-pe and Sw—t, His invective is so crazy 
that it could persuade no one. Yet in his uncritical and almost 
hysterical denial of Swift as a poet, Jonathan Smedley has 
the voice of others who have sometimes seen the devil's foot 
beneath Swift's gown and have damned him for the sin of wit. 

Within ten years after his death, Swift was the subject of 
three first-hand accounts: Lord Orrery's Remarks, 1752; the 
Rev. Patrick Delany's Observations upon Lord Orrery's Re- 
marks, 1754; and Deane Swift's Essay, 1755. These are eval- 
uations by a person of quality, a crony, and a young relative. 
Somewhat condescending in his judgments, Orrery demon- 
strates how coarseness may be a blemish upon true genius. 
Dr. Delany is loyal if uncritical in searching for Swiftian 


passages that may be praised for gentility and fine imagina- 
tion. Deane Swift's contribution lies chiefly in his attempt 
to determine accurate texts and dates of composition. All 
three dwell upon the poetry at length. "Upon a general view 
of his poetry," Orrery writes, "we shall find him, as in his 
other performances, an uncommon, surprizing, heteroclite 
genius: luxurious in his fancy, lively in his ideas, humorous 
in his descriptions, and bitter, exceeding bitter in his satyr." 
Here, even when he shudders slightly at the bitterness, Orrery 
smiles with too much approbation upon the Dean, and he hur- 
ries to add his opinion that the poems, after all, do not rise 
to sublime flights of "airy motion." 

A few of Swift's contemporaries recognized that he had 
something other than "airy motion" in mind— something more 
audacious, surprising, and witty— and commended his poetry 
for the very reason that it flies in the face of the "sublime." 
In June, 1750, the apostrophizing, pretty versifier William 
Shenstone wrote to Lady Luxborough in praise of what his own 
work lacks: he sees Swift as the poetical genius of his age, 
superior to Pope, because of his "inconceivable invention" 
and because he is "in a way rather contemptuous of regular 
poetry and therefore manly." In 1764, from a somewhat differ- 
ent point of view, Goldsmith remarks upon this contempt for 
"regular poetry." According to Goldsmith much of Swift's 
fame stems from his boldness, his determination to draw 
nature as it is, and his distaste for the "spirit of romance 
mixed with all the works of the poets who preceded him." 

So shrewd a reader as Dr. Johnson must surely have felt 
the astonishing force of the contempt and boldness in the 
poetry; but in all matters concerning Swift, Dr. Johnson was 
incontrovertibly pig-headed, approving A Tale of a Tub only 
by the supercilious observation that it must be from someone 
else's pen. What might have been a brilliant evaluation, light- 
ing the way for other critics, is instead an exercise in am- 
biguity—five sentences so bland and intentionally noncom- 
mittal that they become invidious. "In the poetical works of 
Dr. Swift," says Dr. Johnson, "there is not much upon which 
the critic can exercise his powers. They are often humorous, 
almost always light, and have the qualities which recommend 


such compositions, easiness and gaiety. They are, for the 
most part, what their author intended. The diction is correct, 
the numbers are smooth, and the rhymes exact. There seldom 
occurs a hard-laboured expression or a redundant epithet*, 
all his verses exemplify his -own definition of a good style— 
they consist of 'proper words in proper places.' M This is a 
chary description of a capable kind of poetry, but it does not 
show us what Swift wrote, because it stops short, as Dr. 
Johnson certainly intended. If the poetry had been merely 
correct, smooth, exact, easy, and proper, even without sub- 
limity it would today very likely be familiar in anthologies, 
set to music, recited in schoolrooms, and not very inter- 
esting. Other qualities, such as the boldness, parody, and 
paradox in Swift's poetry, are what make it worth talking about. 

After Dr. Johnson, until today, the poems have satisfied 
hardly anyone except Byron, who admired their rhymes, and 
Hazlitt, who liked their irony, satire, and sense. The Europ- 
ean Magazine for November, 1790, describes them as "nothing 
more than prose in rhyme. Imagination, metaphor, and sub- 
limity constitute no part of their merit. Sir Isaac Newton was 
within a trifle as great a poet as Dr. Swift." This is the tone 
of voice to which one becomes accustomed. Even Sir Walter 
Scott, who edited the poems, looks in vain for sublimity, say- 
ing that the appearance of grandeur in them is due to the 
accidental intensity of Swift's invective, and never to "sub- 
limity either of conception or expression." For Leigh Hunt 
the poetry is only "a kind of smart prose." And although 
Thackeray can extol the sublime in Pope's Dunciad, he must 
remark upon Swift's fear of using "the poetical power which 
he really possessed... ." "As fierce a beak and talon as ever 
struck— as strong a wing as ever beat, belonged to Swift," 
says Thackeray; but he does not associate fierceness and 
strength with sublimity where Swift is concerned. In America, 
James Russell Lowell's voice rises shrilly in condemnation 
of "the filthy cynicism of Swift, who delighted to uncover the 
nakedness of our common mother." 

There is disapproval even from scholars who have con- 
nected their names with Swift. "His society verses," J. 
Nichol writes as an introduction to some of them, "are like 


those of a man writing with his feet, for he delights to trample 
on what others caress. Often he seems, among singing birds, 
a vulture screeching over carrion." R. Ellis Roberts pre- 
faces the poems by an admission of his own disgust, amuse- 
ment and pity. More recently still, introducing his choice from 
the poems, W.A. Eddy repeats the old judgment that they are 
largely "not fit for reading." 

All the critics, beginning with Jonathan Smedley, have been 
astute in noting Swift's burlesque style and manner, his in- 
tensity of invective, and his lack of airy motion. These are 
terras that he would himself have applied to the poetry. To 
conclude that it is filthy cynicism, unfit for decent reading, 
seems much less astute, however. And such a damning con- 
clusion, oblivious of Swift's great wit, has worst of all en- 
couraged depreciation and neglect of the poems, which are 
nowadays hard to find except among the paraphernalia of 
textbooks. Throughout the eighteenth century, in collections 
like Vicesimus Knox's Elegant Extracts, Swift was gener- 
ously represented. Since then his poems have faded from the 
anthologies. Jonathan Swift is not represented by even a line 
in Palgrave's Golden Treasury, Pancoast's Standard English 
Poems, Quiller-Couch's Oxford Book of English Verse, or 
Untermeyer's Book of Living Verse. As many as fifty differ- 
ent poems by Swift can, however, be tracked down here and 
there in volumes like The Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century 
Verse, A Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics, and The Less-Known 
British Poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson included part of the 
fierce "Day of Judgement" in his anthology called Parnassus; 
and in The Children's Garland from the Best Poets, Coventry 
Patmore saw fit to place Swift's "Baucis and Philemon" be- 
tween "An Epitaph on a Robin Redbreast" and "Lullaby for 

Swift in the company of Robin Redbreast is rare. For two 
hundred years he has displeased a certain kind of reader who 
cannot admit that poetry wears different faces to suit the era, 
the fashion, the mood, or the subject at hand. 

But Swift's verse does deserve serious consideration along- 
side his prose. Like the prose of Gulliver's Travels, A Tale 


of a Tub, and A Modest Proposal, the verse at its best is in 
the form of parody carried to a level that transcends parody. 
His wit in both verse and prose has its source primarily in 
reaction. After his youthful, infelicitous experiences with 
lofty numbers and second-hand sublimity, he never again 
allowed himself the possibility of bursting foolishly in at- 
tempted flight. Renouncing Cowley and what had seemed 
major poetry, he cleared for himself an area in which he might 
be an excellent minor poet: a relatively safe area that pre- 
cluded any charges of failure with the style sublime. That 
repudiated style indeed provided a source for parody now in 
vocabulary^ images, and attitudes, contributing— when it had 
been taught a new dance— an important part to Swift's area of 
wit. The lofty vocabulary, images, and attitudes now laugh- 
ably were made to assist in an extraordinary kind of poetry 
that intended to surprise, and could shock. 

In studies of Swift's career there is often a waste of crit- 
ical curiosity about his turning suddenly, from his early 
poetic style that did not fit his talent, to a parodying style 
in which he was nearly perfect. If he had not turned, he would 
not have been Jonathan Swift. And it is not indispensable to 
know whether he wrote as he finally did because Dryden had 
told him he would never be a poet, or because he was jealous 
of Congreve, or because he admired the style of Voiture, or 
because he was rebelling against the intimidations of Sir 
William Temple, or because he was ashamed of common birth, 
or because his sex-life was unsatisfactory, or simply because 
he was improving upon the satiric tradition of Samuel But- 
ler's Hudibras. None of these may be the whole truth. What- 
ever combination of things it was, it brought to Swift's poetry 
the same qualities that discerning writers have admired and 
imitated in the prose of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver* s 
Travels. If, as some critics say, there are icy stretches in 
the prose works of this greatest wit of his age, such as the 
want of pathos, propriety, and refined "sensibilities," these 
icy stretches in the poetry have troubled and discouraged 
timid readers for whom it is not "poetry" at all. 

By readers of all periods and persuasions, as widely di- 
verse as Voltaire, Fielding, Cowper, Hazlitt, W.S. Maugham, 


and Walter de la Mare, Swift's prose is described as admirable. 
It is prose distinguished by a concentrated, forceful clarity 
that springs from language tense and close-meshed. It has, 
indeed, the aesthetic effect of severe poetry: Professor 
Cleanth Brooks believes that there is more intensity in Swift's 
prose than in the poetry of all his contemporaries. Brooks 
finds greater passion in A Modest Proposal than in the poetry 
of its day. This is surely an extreme view; but if there are 
the same admirable qualities in both Swift's poetry and prose, 
it is clear that the poems have been shrugged off not because 
they displease, but because their ability to please comes 
largely from qualities associated by prejudice with prose. 

Swift's limitations as a poet, then, lie in his particular 
virtues themselves. His remarkable intensity and concise- 
ness, for example, may account for the lack of variety which 
withholds from his verse a place in the great tradition where 
the work of Milton and Shakespeare unquestionably stands. 
Recognizing his own special abilities, and feeling a predi- 
lection for parody, Swift wrote verse in his own way, just as— 
in his own way too— he wrote extraordinary prose. 

Because it has generally been found satisfactory and easy 
to designate Swift as a writer of "verse," there has been for 
him no long-labored critical conundrum like that of "Was Pope 
a Poet?" Instead, the question for two centuries seems to 
have been whether the imprint of the devil's foot does not 
make Swift's poetry unfit for readers who insist upon sub- 
limity as their sole criterion for excellence. That question, 
with which this book has been concerned, was long ago 
answered in a line by Byron: "Peace to Swift's faults! his 
wit hath made them pass . . ." 



T.S. Eliot's Pmfrock, 1917, and Poems, 1920, established 
a fashion of wit and satire in modern verse; and his Homage 
to John Dry den, 1924, invited modern readers to reconsider 
the connotations of "wit" and "satire" as prejudices of 
Victorian taste. His "Morning at the Window," with its dreary 
basement kitchens, curbs, and gates, is somewhat reminiscent 
of Swift's gray-faced parody called "A Description of the 
Morning." In his "Lines for an Old Man" Eliot makes a truly 
Swiftian statement of hissing wit, tiger-like irritability, and 
hate for dullards. An intentional echoing of Swift may be 
found in Eliot's Four Quartets, in the second part of "Little 
Gidding," praised by W.H. Auden as the best imitation of 
Dante in English. It describes the meeting, before daybreak, 
with a half-familiar ghost that speaks bitterly and ironically 
of "gifts" old age will bring. This ghost, says B. Rajan in 
a study of the Quartets, may be Dante, Mallarme, and Arnaut 
Daniel compounded and "will provide the backbone for one 
hundred American theses..." But the American theses, when 
they are written, will have to identify the ghost with Jona- 
than Swift. It is in Swift's own poetry that we have first en- 
countered Eliot's indignant phrases describing the hopeless- 
ness of rage at follies that are human, the laceration of empty 


laughter, and the sting of approval that comes from fools. 

In acknowledging this reference to Swift in "Little Gidding" 
as a conscious one, Mr. Eliot adds that it is a reference 
which associates Swift with W.B. Yeats.* Rather harshly, 
Yeats himself once directed at Eliot the precise criticism so 
often applied to Swift. Eliot, he said, produces his effects 
by rejection of rhythms and metaphors familiar in romantic 
verse. To Yeats as a critic, what passed for novelty in Eliot's 
poetry was really only an unimaginative absence of the con- 
ventional; and he fell back into Victorian distinctions by call- 
ing Eliot a satirist, not a poet. Yet these very limitations, 
which are also those of Swift's poetry, account for much of 
the enthusiastic critical acceptance Eliot has met elsewhere. 
Among younger poets, especially, satire like Eliot's is con- 
sidered a proper vehicle for serious poetic communication. 
W.H. Auden was recently commended by Stephen Spender 
(according to the New York Times) as the most intellectual 
poet of importance since Pope. Most Georgian or Victorian 
poets would have been distressed by such a comparison. 

Among recent writers whose reputations are already great, 
Hardy, Joyce, and Yeats himself sometimes showed a pre- 
dilection for a style that seems Swiftian. Thomas Hardy's 
deliberately unadorned, disillusioned poetry often uncon- 
sciously resembles Swift's. The two poets shared a dry, 
satiric sense of humor, they both liked homely subjects, and 
they wrote some of their most characteristic verses in the 
form of monologue and dialogue. In "A Necessitarian's Epi- 
taph" Hardy characteristically sets down a complaint against 
a stupid world in what seems the bare language of speech, 
with an un-"poetic," Swiftian simile that likens the meaning- 
less dance of life to the painful jig of a cat that has stepped 
on hot bricks. And both poets used contrast and sudden jux- 
tapositions of the formal and colloquial or the permanent and 

Similarities might be expected in the poetry of Jonathan 
Swift and James Joyce, both Dublin men. Joyce's Chamber 
Music and Pomes Penyeach, however, are composed of liquid, 
mellifluous imagist verses; and it is only in his longer poems, 
♦In a letter to the present writer, dated June 27, 1947. 


"The Holy Office," 1904, and "Gas from a Burner," 1912, 
privately printed in broadsides like eighteenth -century lam- 
poons, that his lines are truly Swiftian.* Written in octosyl- 
labic couplets, satiric and allusive, these two poems seem 
intentionally Swiftian with their rhymes of "give "/"Purga- 
tive," "arses"/"Katharsis," and "thumb"/"bum." They 
allude to Dublin drabs and giddy dames unchanged since 
they showed their faces in "The Journal of a Modern Lady" 
and "The Progress of Beauty." Using excretory imagery like 
Swift's, Joyce has the reverend speaker in "The Holy Office" 
refer to himself as a "sewer" carrying the "filthy streams" 
of confessions. And the conclusion of "Gas from a Burner," 
by substitution of a single word, "bum," turns Catholic ritual 
into bawdy parody, just as Swift made the conventional be- 
come surprising by an unexpected word in his parodies. It was 
of course not in his poetry but in his remarkable Finnegans 
Wake that Joyce made most use of Swift, punning in a hun- 
dred ways on his name and on names connected with his. 
More specifically than in the poetry of Hardy and Joyce, 
Swift's influence can be pointed out in the work of W.B. 
Yeats, who once said that Swift seemed always nearby, haunt- 
ing him. It is generally agreed that Yeats's best poetry is 
the bony, strong, almost bawdy work of his last years, when 
he unquestionably wrote with Swift in mind. In his "Blood 
and the Moon" and "The Seven Sages" he identified Swift, 
Burke, Goldsmith, and Berkeley with the great days of Ire- 
land, the days he wished, through poetry at least, to recall. 
These glorious Irishmen, he said, were enemies of Whiggery 
and stood as symbols of patriotism: they still haunt the "half- 
dead" tower that stands for modern Ireland. Wishing especially 
to identify himself with Swift, he worked the phrase "saeva 
indignatio" into the pattern of his "Blood and the Moon," 
wrote a new version of Swift's epitaph from which that Latin 
phrase is taken, and turned from a style reminiscent of Shel- 
ley to one anti-heroic, cynical, and savage. 

•The origin of the title Chamber Music was certainly Swiftian 
in nature, however. See Herbert Gorman, James Jovce . 


Before Yeats's time there had been curious observations 
on that epitaph which begins: 

HIC DEPOSITUM est corpus 






Thackeray said he had no love for a man who "chisels his 
indignation on his tomb-stone, as if to perpetuate his protest 
against being born of our race..." And Leslie Stephen saw 
in Swift's epitaph "the last of those terrible phrases which 
cling to our memory whenever his name is mentioned." Yeats 
was attracted to these terrible phrases, and he made three 
renderings of them in English. On January 28, 1930, Lady 
Gregory wrote in her journal that she had that day copied two 
versions of Yeats's translation to send to G.B. Shaw, who had 
spoken of the project as a fine idea. The first rendering, 
which Lady Gregory preferred, speaks of the savage indig- 
nation which can no longer lacerate Swift's "soul." The 
second rendering, and the one Lady Gregory says Yeats liked 
better, substitutes "heart" for "soul." But in still another 
version, published in 1931 and used in the Collected Poems 
of Yeats, there are further variations; and here it is Swift's 
"breast" that cannot be lacerated. 

This final version appeared in the Introduction to The 
Words Upon the Window-Pane, a one-act play first performed 
in 1930. It is a play about a meeting of the "Dublin Spirit- 
ualists' Association," who have gathered in a house that two 
hundred years before had belonged to friends of Stella: a 
house that has lines from a poem cut upon a window-pane. 
John Corbet, described as a Cambridge undergraduate, acts 
as Yeats's spokesman in the play, and it is he who recog- 
nizes the words on the window as those from a poem Stella 
is supposed to have written for Swift's fifty-fourth birthday: 

You taught how I might youth prolong 
By knowing what is right and wrong, 


How from my heart to bring supplies 
Of lustre to my fading eyes. 

Swift, who may himself have written those lines, dominates 
the play: throughout the stance that is the occasion for the 
meeting, with businesslike Mrs. Henderson as the medium and 
a dead child named Lulu as control, throughout the necessary 
hymn -singing, and throughout Mrs. Mallet's attempts to con- 
verse with her drowned husband, there is the disconcerting 
voice of Jonathan Swift. He appears to Mrs. Henderson as a 
horrible, dirty old ghost wearing spectacles; and his inter- 
ference, violent and disturbing, brings the stance to an end. 
And when the play itself is ended, one is left with the im- 
pression that the interference of Yeats's own voice through 
John Corbet, like Swift's through Mrs. Henderson, is dis- 
quieting. For John Corbet, the Cambridge undergraduate, is 
made to inquire whether Swift did not foresee Democracy and 
the enslaving of arrogant intellects, whether he did not dread 
such a future, and whether it was not for this reason he re- 
fused to beget children. Though Yeats is here adapting to his 
own purposes, his wish to assume the role of Swift was 

In the Introduction to The Words Upon the Window-Pane 
he wrote that it was now his habit to read Swift's works for 
months at a time, seeking to recreate the mind of a vanished 
century and use it to awaken twentieth-century Ireland. Dur- 
ing his last decade, until his death in 1939, Yeats accom- 
plished great poetry reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose 
own poetry has almost never been called great. In Yeats's 
"Crazy Jane" poems, for example, there are the mockeries, 
rages, zest, simplicity, indignation, wit, and willingness to 
be ridiculous that bear the name of "Swiftian." In "Crazy 
Jane and the Bishop" there is a bitter caricature of a church- 
man: Yeats's description of the bishop, wrinkled like the 
skin of a goose's foot and hunched like a heron, has the 
sound of Swift's unsparing lampoons on churchmen like Dean 

Of all his poems, however, "Under Ben Bulben" seems 
most clearly to derive from Swift. Dated September 4, 1938, 



it is Yeats's counterpart to "Verses on the Death of L)r. 
Swift," with an admonition to surviving poets, and conclud- 
ing with the three lines now inscribed on his tomb. "Horse- 
man, pass by," Yeats's epitaph commands, in conscious 
imitation of Swift's own "46*, viator," "Go traveler," carved 
in the black stone in St. Patrick's Cathedral. 


(Titles of Swift's chief prose works are printed in italics; 
titles of his chief poems appear within quotation marks.) 

1667 (Nov. 30) Jonathan Swift born in Dublin 

1674-82 At Kilkenny Grammar School 

1682-86 At Trinity College, Dublin 

1689-99 Intermittent residence with Sir William 

Temple at Moor Park, Surrey 

1692 M.A., Hart Hall, Oxford; "Ode to the 

Athenian Society" 

1695 Ordained Anglican priest in Ireland 

1696-98 A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the 

Books written at Moor Park (published 

1699 Chaplain to Lord Berkeley in Ireland 

1700 Prebend of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dub- 
lin; Letters of Sir William Temple, I and 
II (ed. Swift; third vol. in 1703) 

1701 D.D. of Dublin; "Mrs. Harris's Petition" 
(published 1709) 

1701-14 Intermittent residence in England 

1709 "Baucis and Philemon"; "A Description 
of the Morning" 

1710 Writes for the Tory Examiner; "A De- 
scription of a City Shower" 

1710-13 Writes Journal to Stella 


1711 Miscellanies in Prose and Verse; The 

Conduct of the Allies 

1713 Membership in Scriblerus Club; installed 
as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral; "Cad- 
enus and Vanessa" (published 1726) 

1714 "The Author upon Himself" (published 

1719 "On Stella's Birth-Day" (published 1727) 

1720 Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish 
Manufactures; "To Stella, Who Collected 
and Transcribed His Poems" (published 
1727); "To Stella, Visiting Me in My 
Sickness" (published 1727) 

1721 Letter to a Young Gentleman f Lately En- 
ter' d into Holy Orders; "Stella's Birth- 
Day" (published 1727) 

1722 "A Satirical Elegy" (published 1764); 
"The Progress of Marriage" (published 
1765); "To Stella on Her Birth-Day" 
(published 1766) 

1723 Death of Vanessa; "Stella's Birth-Day" 
(published 1727); "Stella at Wood-Park" 
(published 1735) 

1724 The Drapier's Letters; "To Stella" (pub- 
lished 1765) 

1725 "Stella's Birth-Day" (published 1727); 
"A Receipt to Restore Stella's Youth" 
(published 1735) 

1726 Visits Pope at Twickenham; Gulliver's 

1727 Miscellanies, I and II (ed. Pope); "Stella's 
Birth-Day"; "Holyhead Journal" (pub- 
lished 1882) 

1728-30 Three visits to Sir Arthur and Lady 

Acheson at Market Hill, Ireland 


1728 Death of Stella; "Last" vol. of Miscel- 
lanies (ed. Pope); A Short View of the 
State of Ireland; "My Lady's Lamenta- 
tion" (published 1765) 

1729 A Modest Proposal; "The Journal of a 
Modern Lady"; "The Grand Question 
Debated" (published 1732) 

1730 "The Lady's Dressing-Room" (published 
1732); "Death and Daphne" (published 

1731 "The Place of the Damn'd"; "A Beauti- 
ful Young Nymph Going to Bed" (pub- 
lished 1734); "Strephon and Chloe" (pub- 
lished 1734); "Verses on the Death of 
Dr. Swift" (published 1739); "The Day 
of Judgement" (exact date of composi- 
tion unknown, published 1774) 

1732 "Third" vol. of Miscellanies (ed. Pope); 
An Examination of Certain Abuses, Cor- 
ruptions, and Enormities in the City of 
Dublin; "The Beasts Confession" (pub- 
lished 1738) 

1733 "On Poetry: A Rapsody"; "An Epistle 

to a Lady"; A Serious and Useful Scheme, 
to Make an Hospital for Incurables 

1735 Works ofJ.S.D.D.D.S.P.D., four vols. 
(Dublin, published Faulkner; later ex- 
tended to twenty vols.; poetry chiefly in 
Vol. II); "Fifth" vol. of Miscellanies 
(ed. Pope) 

1736 "The Legion Club" 
1738 Polite Conversation 

1742 Guardians appointed for Swift 

1744 Death of Pope 

1745 (Oct. 19) Death of Swift in Dublin 


1746 "A Cantata" published 

1754-55 Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., six vols. 

(London, ed. Hawkes worth; later extended, 
by Deane Swift and Nichols, to twenty- 
seven vols.); includes poems 

1814 Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., nineteen 

vols. (Edinburgh, ed. Sir Walter Scott; 
second edition, corrected, in 1824); in- 
cludes poems 

1833-34 Poetical Works of Jonathan Swift, three 

vols. (London, Aldine Edition, based on 
Scott, 1824, with "Life of Swift" by Mit- 

1910 Poems of Jonathan Swift, D.D., two vols. 

(London, ed. W.E. Browning, based on 
Scott, 1824) 

1937 Poems of Jonathan Swift, three vols. 

(Oxford, ed. Williams; text printed "from 
manuscript, from a first edition, or from 
an authoritative early text") 


ACHESON, Lady, "Daphne," 50-4 
Acheson, Sir Arthur, 50, 51 
"Acting in Character," 35-42 
Addison, Joseph, xvi, xvii, 5, 10, 13, 

55, 71-2, 74-5, 79-80, 91-2 
Aesop, 3 
Anne, Queen, 10 
Arbuthnot, Dr. John, 60, 83 
Aristotle, 3 
Arne, Thomas, 100 
Arnold, Matthew, 69-70 
Athenian Gazette, The, 3 
Auden, W.H., xii, 38, 49, 121, 130, 131 
Austen, Jane, 50 

BALL, F. Elrington, 123 

Barber, Mary, 16 

Bathurst, Allen, 1st Earl of, 32 

Blackmore, Sir Richard, xi, 2, 3, 18,69 

Blair, Robert, 15 

Berkeley, Charles, 2nd Earl of, 36 

Berkeley, Dr. George, 132 

Boileau, 61 

Brooks, Cleanth, 129 

Brown, Tom, 7 

Bunyan, John, 69 

Burke, Edmund, xi, 132 

Burlesque, 20 

Butler, Samuel, 3, 24, 25-6, 128 

Byron, Lord, xvii, 20, 26, 126, 129 

CARTERET, John, Earl Granville, 108 

Cervantes, 33 

Chaucer, Geoffrey, 27, 30, 45 

Chesterfield, 4th Earl of, 80-1 

Cibber, Colley, 18, 20 

Cleveland, John, 72 

Coleridge, S.T., 24, 116 

Collier, Jeremy, 69 

Concannen, Matthew, 18 

Congreve, William, 3, 6-8, 71, 128 

Connolly, Cyril, 2 

Cotton, Charles, 14 

Cowley, Abraham, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 44, 71, 

72, 97, 128 
Cowper, William, 128 
Craik, Sir Henry, 16 
Cummings, E.E., 59, 79 

DANTE, 130 

"Daphne," see Acheson, Lady 
Davenant, Sir William, 3 
Davis, Herbert, 27, 43, 96, 97, 113, 123 
Defoe, Daniel, 7, 69 
de la Mare, Walter, 129 
Delany.Dr. Patrick, 74, 100, 113, 124-5 
Denham, Sir John, xiv, 3 
Dennis, John, x, xi, 18, 69 
Descartes, 30 

Diction in poetry, 12, 27-8, 78, 91-2 
Donne, John, 22, 70, 72, 73, 108, 109 
Dorset, 6th Earl of, 119 
Dryden, John, 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 18, 27, 
34, 71, 72, 85, 88, 89-90, 128 

ECHLIN, Rev. John, 100 

Eddy, W.A., 127 

Eliot, T.S., 5, 40, 75, 90, 111-112, 114, 

121, 130-1 
Emerson, R.W., 127 
European Magazine, The, 126 

FAULKNER, George, 100 

Fielding, Henry, xvii, 10, 36, 128 

Figures of Speech, 28-31, 64, 65, 76-7 

Flatman, Thomas, 5, 60, 80, 93, 97 

Flecknoe, Richard, 18 

Fleming, Marjory, 34 

Frost, Robert, 121 

GARTH, Dr. Samuel, xiv 

Gay, John, x, xii-xiii, 21, 33, 60, 61, 

87-8, 100, 117 
Gentleman' s Magazine, The, xv 
George II, 20 
Gibbs, Dr. James, 26-7 
Gilbert. W.S., 56-7 


Gillray, James, 98 

Golding, Arthur, 89, 90 

Goldsmith, Oliver, 15, 24, 43, 125, 132 

Gorman, Herbert, 132 note 

Graves, Robert, 121 

Gray, Thomas, 69 

Gregory, Lady Au gusto, 133 

Grierson, Sir Herbert, 103 

Grigson, Geoffrey, 7 

Grimston, William, 1st Viscount, 18 

HARDY, TTiomas, 39, 41, 65, 77, 82, 

84, 131, 132 
Harley, Robert, see Oxford 
Harris, Frances, 9, 36-9 
Hazlitt, William, 39, 63, 126, 128 
Herrick, Robert, 23, 25, 46-7 
Highet, Gilbert, 39 note 
Hobbes, Thomas, x, 2, 18, 19, 61, 70-1 
Hogarth, William, xvi, 10, 99, 104-5, 

Homer, 2, 3, 26 
Hone, Nathaniel, 52 
Hopkins, G.M., xv 
Horace, xv, 2, 13, 15, 54-5 
Howard, Edward, 18 
Humor, xvii, 32-4 
Hunt, Leigh, 126 
Hunter, Col. Robert, 10 
Huxley, Aldous, 116 

INTELLIGENCER, The (No. 3), 33 
Invective, 58-9, 100-4 

JOHNSON, Esther, "Stella," 34, 45-50, 
58, 75, 84, 85, 103, 112, 117, 123, 

Johnson, Dr. Samuel, xiv, xv, 10, 27, 
43, 72, 93, 109, 125-6 

Jonson, Ben, 25, 72 

Joyce, James, 83-4, 131-2 

Juvenal, xv 

"KINDS" of poetry, xi-xiv 

King, Dr. William, 61, 63 

Kirby, J.J., 90 

Knox, Vicesimus, 127 


Latinity, xiv-xvi, 54-5, 106-7 

Lawrence, D.H., 116 

Less-Known British Poets, The, 127 

Locke, John, 30, 71 

Lodge, Thomas, 25 

Lovelace, Richard, 25 

Lowell, J.R., 116, 126 

Lucretius, 2 
Luxborough, Lady, 125 

MARLBOROUGH, 1st Duke of, 10, 

Marvell, Andrew, 22, 25, 48-9 
Maugham, W.S. 128 
Maupassant, Guy de, 77 
"Mercutio," 81 
Milton, John, x, xiv, 5, 26, 68, 77, 93, 

Montaigne, 44, 61 
"Moral" poems, 106-121 
Mulgrave, 3rd Earl of, xii-xiii 

NASH, Ogden, 56-7 
Newton, Sir Isaac, 126 
New York Times, The, 131 
Nichol, John, 126-7 
Nicolson, Marjorie, 19 

ORRERY, 5th Earl of, xv, 27, 53, 100- 

101, 116, 124-5 
Orwell, George, 117 
Ovid, 15, 30, 89, 90, 98 
Owen, Wilfred, 55 
Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century 

Verse, The, 127 
Oxford, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of, xv, 

PALGRAVE, F.T., 127 
Para ell, Thomas, x, 76 
Parody, 12, 15, 18, 24-5, 76-7, 84-100, 

Patmore, Coventry, 127 
Petronius, 2, 41 
Philips, Ambrose, 10, 99 
Pilkington, Laetitia, 35, 52-3, 116 
Pindar, 3 

"Pindaric" odes, 3-6 
Pons, Emile, 7 
Pope, Alexander, x, xi, xiv, xv, xvii, 

5, 10, 15, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26, 30, 50, 

54, 60, 61, 69, 70, 72, 74, 99 note, 

117, 123-4, 125, 126, 129, 131 
Prior, Matthew, 85, 117 
Pulteney, William, 83 

QUILLER-COUCH, Sir Arthur, 127 
Quintana, Ricardo, 20, 113. 123 

Rajan, B., 130 
Roberts, R.E., 122, 127 
Rochester, 2nd Earl of, xvi, 40, 93 
Rowe, Elizabeth, 7 


Rowse, A.L., 123 
Rymer, Thomas, 18 


Saintsbury, George, 36 

Sancroft, Dr. William, 3, 5, 6 

Satire, 15, 16 

Scott, Sir Walter, 126 

Shadwell, Thomas, 72 

Shakespeare, William, 15, 27, 70, 75-6, 
77, 120, 129 

Shaw, G.B., xvii, 133 

Shelley, P.B., 132 

Shenstone, William, 125 

Sheridan, Thomas, 55-7, 101 

Sitwell, Edith, 46 

Skelton, John, 23 

Smedley, Jonathan, 123-4, 127 

Smith, J.C., 103 

Smollett, Tobias, 117 

Smythe, J.M., 18 

Spectator, The, (No. 238), 85; (No. 285), 
xv i 

Spender, Stephen, 131 

Steele, Sir Richard, xvii, 10-11, 69, 

"Stella," see Johnson, Esther 

Stephen, Sir Leslie, 133 

Stopford, James, 45-6 

Sublimity, ix-xi, 126 

Sutherland, James, xvii 

Swift, Deane, 124-5 

Swift, Jonathan, poetic aspirations, 1- 
2, 8-9; early reading, 2-3; advice to 
poets, 16-18, 21; characteristics of 
poetry, xvii, 7, 29, 53-4, 127-9; cri- 
tics of, 122-7; influence of, 130-5; 
chronology of life and works, 136-9; 
epitaph, 114, 132-3, 135 


Argument against Abolishing Chris- 
tianity, 107, 109 

Bottle of the Books, 3, 10, 30, 74 

Discourse Concerning the Mechani- 
cal Operation of the Spirit, xi 

Gulliver's Travels, x, 10, 28, 31, 62, 
76, 85, 90, 113, 115, 117, 127, 128 

Intelligencer (No. 3), 33 

Journal to Stella, 73 

Letter to a Young Gentleman, 109 

Letter to a Young Lady, 39 

Meditation upon a Broom-Stick, 34 

A Modest Proposal, 60, 85, 113, 128, 

On the Causes of the Wretched Con- 
dition of Ireland, 108 

On Doing Good, 108 

Polite Conversation, 35-6, 39, 40 

Tale of a Tub, xi, 3, 8, 10, 28-9, 33, 
74, 117, 125, 127-8 

Thoughts on Various Subjects, 62 

"Advice to the Grub-Street Verse 

Writers," 26 
"Answer to 'Paulus'," 41 
"Apollo Outwitted," 9, 29 
"Apollo's Edict," xiii, 27-8 
"As Thomas was cudgell'd," 84 
"Author's Manner of Living," 59 
"Author upon Himself," 13, 57-8,60 
"Baucis and Philemon," xiv, 9, 13, 

15, 55, 60, 74, 85, 89-92, 105, 127 
"Beasts Confession," 7, 30, 107-8 
"Beautiful Young Nymph," 73, 94, 

114, 115-6 
"Birth of Manly Virtue," 108 
"Cadenus and Vanessa," 23, 40-1, 

43-5, 60-1 
"Cantata," 99-100 
"Carberiae Rupes," xv 
"Cassinus and Peter," 114, 119, 120 
"Clad All in Brown," 97-8 
"Clever Tom Clinch," 22 
"Daphne," 52 
"Day of Judgement," xi, 15, 74, 79- 

82, 105, 127 
"Dean and Duke," 59 
"Dean's Reasons," 29 
"Dean to Himself on St. Cecilia's 

Day," 59 
"Death and Daphne," 52-3 
"Description of a City Shower," xiv, 

13, 21, 85-9, 105 

"Description of the Morning," 9, 10- 

15, 130 
"Desire and Possession," 108 
"Dialogue between an Eminent Law- 
yer and D r . Swift," 67 
"Directions for a Birth-day Song," 

6, 21, 26 
"Elegy on Mr. Partrige," 9 
"Epigram on Irish Sense," 83-4 
"Epigram on Scolding," 83 


"Epistle to a Lady," ix, 7, 22, 53- 

54, 106, 107 
"Famous Prediction of Merlin," 

xii, 9 
"From Dr. Swift to Dr. Sheridan," 

"Furniture of a Woman's Mind," 39 
"Grand Question Debated," 26, 41, 

"Holyhead," 58-9, 60 
"Imitation of the Sixth Satire of the 

Second Book of Horace," 54 
"In praes o Molli," xv 
"In Sickness," 59 
"Ireland," 41 

"I walk before no man," 24 
"Joan cudgells Ned," 84 
"Journal of a Modern Lady," 39-40, 

50-1, 132 
"Lady's Dress ing-Room," xiv, xv, 

8, 10, 114, 116-120 
"Legion Club," xv, 11, 15, 26, 100- 

"Life and Genuine Character of Doc- 
tor Swift," 61 
"Love Song," xiv 
"Love Song in the Modern Taste," 

xiii, 98-9 
"Mary the Cook-Maid's Letter," 36, 

38-9, 56 

"Mrs. Harris's Petition," 9, 36-9 
"My Lady's Lamentation," 22, 23- 

24. 51-2 
"Occasioned by Sir W(illiam) T(em- 

ple)'s Late Illness and Recovery," 

"Ode to Dr. William Sancroft," 3, 5, 

22, 24 
"Ode to the Athenian Society," 3-4, 

"Ode to the Honourable Sir William 

Temple," 3, 4 

"On Burning a Dull Poem," 28 
"On Censure," 108 
"On Dreams," 41 
"On His Deafness," 77-8 
"On Mr. Pulteney," 29 
"On Poetry: A Rapsody," xi, 6, 7, 

15-20, 22, 30, 70 
"On Stella's Birth-Day, March 13, 

1719," 48 
"On the words-Brother Protestant," 


"Panegyrick on the Dean," 22 

"Panegyrick on the Reverend Dean 
Swift," 68 

"Part of the Seventh Epistle of the 
First Book of Horace Imitated," 54 

"Pastoral Dialogue," xiv, 95-6 

"Place of the Damn'd," 15, 78-9 

"The Poet," 3 

"Power of Time," 75-7, 78, 85 

"The Problem," 9 

"Progress of Beauty," 26, 29, 114, 
119, 132 

"Progress of Love," 39 

"Progress of Marriage," 39, 113 

"Progress of Poetry," 30 

"Quibbling Epigram," xiii 

"The Ramble," 3 

"Richmond-Lodge and Marble-Hill," 

"Satirical Elegy," xii, 96-7 

"Stella at Wood-Park," 23 

"Stella's Birth-Day, 1727," 48-9 

"Strephon and Chloe," xiv, 94-5, 

"To Dr. Delany on the Libels," 68 

"To Lord Harley, on His Marriage," 

"To Mr. Congreve," 3, 6-8, 122 

"To Mr. Delany," x , 33-4, 50, 74 

"To Mrs. Biddy Floyd," 9 
"To Stella, Visiting Me in My Sick- 
ness, 46-8 

"To Stella, Who Collected and Tran- 
scribed his Poems," 48, 94 
"T the Earl of Oxford," 55 
"To the Earl of Peterborow," 26 

"To the Rev. Mr. Daniel Jackson," 

"True English Dean to Be Hanged 

for Rape," 22 
" Vanbrug's House," early version, x 
"Verses on I Know Not What," xiii 
"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift," 

xv, 1, 15, 19, 22, 59-66, 68, 73, 135 
"Verses Wrote in a Lady's Ivory 

Table Book." 39 
"When Margery chastises Ned," 84 
Swift, Thomas, 1, 3, 8, 85 
Synge, J.M., 121 

TAINE, Hippolyte, 45, 88, 116 
Toiler, 7%e,(No.9), 10; (No.238), 85 
Temple, Sir William, x, 2-9 passim, 34, 
71, 72, 128 


Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, 97, 103 

Thackeray, W.M., 79-80, 126, 133 

Thomas, Dylan, 59 

Thomson, James, 26, 30 

Thucydides, 2 

Tighe, Richard, 97, 98 

Tillotson, Geoffrey, xvi 

Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics, A, 127 

UNTERMEYER, Louis, 127 
"VANESSA," see Vanhomrigh, Esther 
Vanhomrigh, Esther, 42-5, 112 
Variety in poetry, 23-5 
Versification, 13-14, 21-3, 24-7, 46-7, 

56-7, 59, 60, 76, 82, 87-8 
Virgil, xiv, 2, 3, 89, 101 
Voiture, Vincent, 2, 50, 128 

Voltaire, 60, 80, 128 

WALLER, Edmund, 27, 44 

Walpole, Sir Robert, 16, 18, 20 

Waterford, Bishop of, 80 

Watts, Isaac, 80 

Welsted, Leonard, 18 

Wesley, Samuel, 3 

William III, 3, 6 

Williams, Harold, 5, 49, 52, 53, 122-3 

Wilson, Edmund, 123 

Winchilsea, Anne Finch, Countess of, 

Wit, xvii, 12, 67-75, 109 
Wordsworth, William, 47, 52 
YEATS, W.B., 4-5, 120, 121, 131, 132- 



Date Due 





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